Chicken operation causes public outcry

Friday, January 26, 2007

EAGLE ROCK, Mo. -- Close to 200 people attended a public information session Jan. 22 called by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about a chicken farm operation permit in Eagle Rock.

Michelle Ozbun (the property owner applying for the permit), 68th District House Representative David Sater, representatives of George's Chicken, the DNR and other concerned groups and individuals convened to answer questions in a three-hour session.

Ozbun is applying for a permit from the DNR for a Class 1C Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) consisting of four pullet houses with a capacity of 65,600 birds that will be raised from chicks and sent to breeder farms.

An outcry of opposition from local residents has resulted in several meetings in the last few months over concerns about potential threats to area residents' health from airborne particles, threats to the water quality of the Roaring River and Table Rock Lake watersheds and loss of property values and tourism.

An hour into the session, DNR Water Protection Program Director Edward Galbraith gave in to residents' pleas to conduct the session in a group question-and-answer format so that everyone could hear the information.

DNR officials told the crowd that if Ozbun and her husband follow all the rules required by the permit, the agency cannot deny its issue. Officials are expected to make a decision in February.

Local residents say they have heard there are two other area property owners considering CAFOs if the Ozbun permit is successful. Opponents asked whether anything can be done to stop it.

"I can't give you any assurance that no more will come in," Galbraith said. "I can't say it's the first of many or it will be the last. Where I'd like to give you some comfort in this area, I just can't."

A map generated a year ago by the DNR of CAFOs in Missouri shows the highest concentration in Barry County, with Newton having the second-highest.

A study done by the Oklahoma Office of the Secretary of the Environment in 2004 on declining water quality in Grand Lake noted a four-state watershed area feeding into the lake from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. The study determined that 54 percent of the point-source pollution and 72 percent of the non-point source came from Missouri, primarily from CAFOs.

"Runoff from areas with high concentrations of confined animal operations has been shown to contribute significant quantities of nutrients to receiving streams," the report stated. "Nutrient loading in these streams has reduced their quality, as well as that of downstream reservoirs."

Republican Rep. David Sater, who has written letters to the DNR specifically about the Ozbun permit, requesting them to make "absolutely certain" any pollution will be contained, was nevertheless cautious at the meeting.

"We have to abide by the laws in existence in the state," he said. "I'm all for free enterprise, but we have to be sensitive to environmental damage. We must make sure there is no pollution. I have no authority over this. I have written letters and talked to Department Head (Doyle) Childers, but if the chicken house owners follow all the regulations, at present there is nothing we can do about it.

"I can propose legislation for the future, but it won't help this situation today."

George's Chicken officials say there is little danger of runoff going into Roaring River, which is 1.3 miles downhill from where the chicken houses, dry litter storage and dead bird composting shed will be sited.

"The dry litter is picked up with a front-end loader and hauled off," said Ricky Pinkerton. "The washing is high-pressure that wets the house with a disinfectant that evaporates. The water used is two one-hundredths of a gallon per square foot. There is no runoff."

Ozbun has 20 acres to which she can land-apply litter, but says she has no plans within the next two years to do so. She did not say she never would.

Opponents' concerns that land-applied litter will seep down to the water table were answered by DNR Permits Section Chief Rob Morrison.

"We asked the Division of Geology to evaluate the site for sinkholes. We did not find any karst features -- no sinkholes, springs, caves or collapsed features."

Ozbun said she already has a contract with George's to buy birds. Four-State Poultry Supply will construct the houses.

Ozbun and her husband, who is a truck driver, and their children moved back a year ago to the farm where she grew up and where her family has owned land for more than 100 years. She said she wants to operate the farm so she can be a stay-at-home mom. Her father, Norman Ball, said he is deeding 62 of his 78 acres to the couple for their operation.

In response to concerns about airborne particles, Ozbun said, "My family's been in chickens since the 1940s. My grandfather is 86. My family has never had health problems."

DNR officials said they only monitor an operation of this size for compliance every two to three years. They have four inspectors for 25 counties. There are currently 150 permanent poultry farms in Southwest Missouri, 40 of them in Barry County.

These figures have area residents concerned.

"How many will you allow to be built, and when things start going bad, how will you fix it?" one attendee asked.

"It's out of my control," said Galbraith. "A number of people here told me they came up here from Northwest Arkansas and they don't want to see that happen here. State law tries to balance the interests of the people with a farm and the interests of everyone else."

"The number of CAFOs in an area is not a factor," added Morrison. "If they meet the qualifications, we have to issue the permit."

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