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New regulations proposed as Oklahoma chicken industry grows

Changes proposed as chicken industry grows
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-05 18:28:55-04

COLCORD, Okla. — Many people make Delaware County their home to enjoy the quiet countryside.

But over the last few years, the sound of fans and chicken farms is starting to shake their peace. Brandy Rusk lives on the fence line of chicken houses in Colcord. Based on the size of these homes, she estimates more than 150,000 birds are next door.

"I have a 16-year-old that has asthma and he has allergies really bad. The dust, the feathers, everything that pollutes the air from the chicken houses can trigger the asthma," Rusk said.

The houses next to Rusk are contracted out through Simmons, just one company of many in this area. Staff there told us in a statement:

"From our hatcheries to our partner growers to our processing facilities, operating in an environmentally responsible manner is essential to our business and the communities where we operate. We take this responsibility very seriously and actively work with our partners and communities to highlight opportunities and address concerns.

Simmons requires our partner growers to operate in full compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations. Growers are required to operate with a nutrient management plan approved by the State of Oklahoma. Every farmer takes a specialized approach in the management of litter that includes soil testing and working with experts to determine the best way to recycle or sell litter for other uses. Growers are also required to participate in state-sponsored continuing education for litter management best practices.

In addition, poultry waste applicators must obtain state licensing and report annually on the source and application location, date, and rate, as well as soil testing and poultry waste testing from their operations. This ensures the responsible use of poultry litter to enrich crop production and protect watersheds.

Simmons does not determine where or how many chicken houses farmers build and/or operate — That is the growers’ opportunity and responsibility. Local farmers are making significant investment decisions, sometimes with millions of dollars at stake. A typical modern poultry house is an approximate investment of $500,000. Each farmer determines the appropriate level of investment for their farming operation including the county and state where they desire to invest. Any new construction must comply with all local and state regulations."

But homeowners nearby said the impact doesn't stop when they go to sleep at night.

"When they come and take the chickens out it's equipment in all night, we can't sleep, the lights are in our bedroom and you hear them constantly all night moving the flocks out," Rusk said.

Families who live on the fence line of chicken houses tell 2 Works for You they're preparing for summer, which is the worst time of year for debris to come out of fans and into their homes.

"There's times where she can't come out here and play, she can't come out here and swim because the smell and the debris is just overpowering and we don't allow her to be out in it," Shea Duncan said.

Duncan said she's thought about moving with her young daughter multiple times since farms popped up near her home five years ago.

"We cut and bail our own hay, granted my husband and my father-in-law do. Then my daughter and I, we help move the hay. It's a challenge just to do that. You need a mask over your face, especially going over there in front of those fans," she said.

Michael Appel moved to the area to start an organic farm. A year ago, he became concerned.

"Since then over like 200 houses have been built within just Delaware County alone. We're just on the southern end of Delaware County and it's just been this tsunami," Appel said.

We reached out to Oklahoma's Department of Agriculture. They told us in a statement:

"We recognize the importance of poultry in Oklahoma and also recognize the voices of concerned Oklahomans. The Department held numerous meetings and a public hearing on the issue last fall and into February of this year to gather input from stakeholders. On February 19, 2019, the State Board of Agriculture, in a 3-2 vote, approved a rule pertaining to setbacks for new or expanding construction of poultry barns. These setback requirements will help enhance the living conditions of citizens and also will continue to support the poultry industry, which has a large economic impact on our state. Poultry and egg sales rank 3rd in the state based on total market value of agriculture products sold with over $935 million. This accounts for 12.5% of the total agriculture sales in Oklahoma in 2017.

There is currently no setback requirement for poultry operations for the state with one exception: the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry cannot accept or approve any applications requesting permits for registration, construction or expansion of any poultry feeding operation, within one mile upstream of the Pensacola Project boundary as described in the records of the Grand River Dam Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There are currently no regulations in place on any poultry housing locations; however, we recognize the importance of poultry in Oklahoma and also recognize the voices of concerned Oklahomans,” said Blayne Arthur, Secretary of Agriculture and President of the State Board of Agriculture. “These setbacks will help enhance the living conditions of citizens and also will continue to support the poultry industry, which has a large economic impact on our state.”

Representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry have been in the area on several occasions and seen the facilities referenced. Sec. Arthur has also spent time in the area recently touring facilities and the vicinity along Highway 412.

The existing moratorium on new and expanding operations expires at the end of this month. Setback rules will go into effect in September as long as they are approved by the legislature—we expect they will be."

Those regulations include making sure houses of 150,000 birds are less are 500 feet from a home, or a thousand feet for larger chicken houses. They also would need to be 1500 feet from a school and 1500 feet from city limits.

Appel is also concerned about water supply. Staff with the Water Resources Board said they're working on a geological survey to figure out the impact.

"It just makes this area... this area which is so beautiful, so pristine... kind of tarnished. We're just really worried about the long-term effects as they continue to draw more and more water year after year," Appel said.

The agriculture board has placed a moratorium on new and expanding operations at least until the end of May.

"Are we going to see a new influx of applications coming in? Are we going to be back at square one again of fighting this? So we're very apprehensive of what's happening," Appel said.

Staff with the board said they want to find middle ground because poultry and egg sales rank third in the state for agriculture, accounting for just under 13 percent of sales.

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