Northeast Oklahoma neighbors organizing to call for limits on poultry industry

More than a neighborhood problem, this scene is for real and the corporate interest will grow their business. This is what no regulations, no restrictions in todays world of the " the Pruitt " Our Oklahoma State agencies will just rollover and make excuses for their responsibilities to protect the land and water. Please recall right to farm, and big chicken wanted that in the Oklahoma Constitution. Note the comments by our State Agency folks, they are indicative of the do nothing crowd. Senator Muegge, retired

Paul Muegge

Northeast Oklahoma neighbors organizing to call for limits on poultry industry

Oklahoma residents address issues of poultry farm expansions

By Kelly Bostian Tulsa World

With concerns about water shortages, water quality, air quality and health, residents of northeast Oklahoma are organizing to address issues they have with new and expanding poultry farm operations.

A group gathered at the Peggs Community Center Sunday also made it clear that anyone running for political office this fall best be aware of their issues.

Initially a small word-of-mouth meeting planned for Sunday, it quickly grew into a regional meeting of 35, with areas from Tahlequah to Colcord represented. By the accident of a Tulsa World reporter asking questions of others in the area later that day, another group was found.

“It’s a group of us from around here (Leach, Rose and Twin Oaks),” said Curtis Snell, a former Cherokee Nation Council member and resident of Rose.

He has 50 chicken houses within two miles of his home. It seems he can’t escape them, as a dozen more are just north of the highway where he goes to the Lowery Free Will Baptist Church. He pointed out another six were just built two miles down the road, about 600 feet north of the front door of the Twin Oaks Baptist Church.

Informed of the Peggs meeting Sunday and of that group’s plan to meet again somewhere in the Leach area within two weeks, he was surprised and encouraged.

“Maybe we can join forces,” he said.

An increase in chicken house numbers comes with planned construction of an upgraded poultry processing facility about 25 miles away, in Arkansas.

Simmons Foods is building a new plant 2.2 miles north of an existing plant in Decatur. It is set to open in 2019 and expand to full capacity by 2022. The company projects a 16 percent increase in the number of chickens processed and that will take an area increase of slightly more than 200 chicken houses, about half of which would be built on existing farms in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, according to Simmons Foods spokesman Donny Epp.

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry on its web site lists 41 licenses for new or expanded poultry operations over the past 12 months. Of those, 16 licenses — for a total of 96 new houses — are listed for Delaware County. Simmons Foods is named as the integrator for all but one.

Of 25 total licenses under Simmons, two more are pending applications and do not yet list a location, two are listed for Mayes, three for Adair, and one each is listed for Cherokee, Ottawa, and Craig counties.

All operations must be licensed by the department and any operations that disturb more than one acre of land must have a building permit that addresses storm water management, said Jeremy Seiger, director of the Agriculture Department’s Environmental Services Division.

Placement of the houses in relation to homes, other structures or watersheds is not regulated, he said.

Residents at the Peggs meeting said they are frustrated by poultry houses “springing up” and said a permitting process with public notification is needed, along with setbacks from sensitive streams, homes and community buildings.

Another idea forwarded was to limit the number of houses allowed within a square mile or two-mile area.

Wells going dry was a major concern with several families at the Peggs meeting.

“It’s terrifying,” said Bobbie Foreman of Leach. “Without water there is no life.”

Peggy Thompson said her family’s Rose home has had a good water supply for generations but expanded poultry operations are using up the water.

“I have to drive 10 miles to do laundry at a Laundromat now instead of doing it in my own home,” she said.

No clear evidence points to the poultry operation expansion as the cause for the recent water problems, but Kent Wilkens, chief of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Planning and Management Division, said it is possible in theory.

People can contact the division and arrange inspections and staff can offer advice, he said.

“If there is a lot of use in one concentrated area it can pull the water table down,” he said. Drought and other seasonal factors and depth of wells can affect the water table as well, he said.

Agriculture operations must apply for permits for water use and there is a limit to how much they can use.

The permit application process includes public notice and individuals can challenge applications during that process. Wilkens offered an example of one operator whose license was challenged and who agreed to encase their well down 500 feet to avoid conflict with a neighbor with a shallower water supply.

Additionally, the Boone and Rabideaux aquifers are in the beginning stages of a basin study that will take roughly three years to complete, he said.

After that study is complete, water restrictions could be adjusted based on full knowledge of the aquifer and the volume it can provide. Currently it is allocated on a “default” level of 2 acre feet per acre owned by the landowner, he said.

Other issues raised by the group at Peggs include road damage and dust raised by constant large truck traffic, and unknown effects of breathing air fouled by the smells of chicken litter or, especially, the incineration of carcasses of chickens that die during the rearing process.

Mike Appel said he wished a moratorium on new and expanded operations could be issued “until we know more about the associated risks and have some better guidelines and regulations,” he said.

“As a community we are just completely in the dark,” he said.

People at the meeting in Peggs are, for the time being, organizing through Facebook at the Spring Creek Guardians group page.