Eric Simon plans to build 11 chicken barns on a 60-acre property in Scio to raise 3.4 million chickens a year for Foster Farms. (Photo provided by Kendra Kimbirauskas)

A farmer and three nonprofits representing small farmers and environmentalists took their opposition to a large chicken facility in Scio to Linn County Circuit Court this week.

Their petition, which accuses the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality of ignoring potential pollution, seeks judicial review of a state wastewater permit allowing J-S Ranch to move forward. Eric Simon, owner of J-S Ranch, plans to build 11 large barns on his property in Scio to raise about 3.4 million chickens a year under contract with Foster Farms. Foster Farms, recently acquired by a holding company, contracts with similar industrial chicken operations in Oregon but J-S Ranch would be the biggest, the lawsuit says.

“If it is built, J-S Ranch will be the largest poultry operation in the state of Oregon,” the petition says.

Christina Eastman, a third-generation farmer in Scio, is a plaintiff on the petition along with the Oregon nonprofits Farmers Against Foster Farms, a group of farmers in the area; Friends of Family Farmers, which represents 1,200 smaller farms in Oregon; and Willamette Riverkeeper, an environmental group.

A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment, saying the state needed more time to review the suit. A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture said officials hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet.

Simon’s plans to build 11 barns with 4 inches of compacted soil in them to prevent chicken droppings from seeping into the groundwater. The petition says the groundwater lies up to about 2 feet below the surface and that a 4-inch soil barrier won’t prevent pollution. The area is prone to floods, averaging about 55 inches of rain a year. The lawsuit says the facility would pollute the Santiam River, about 1,450 feet away, which is home to a “multitude of native fish species, unique river features, and at least two federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, winter steelhead and spring Chinook salmon, that spawn and rear in the river.”

Ammonia discharges

The petitioners say Simon’s facility would produce ammonia from the chicken manure, which would be blown out of the barns with huge fans.

“Given the proximity of the operation to the North Santiam River, the topography of the area, the fast-changing course of the Santiam River, the characteristically wet nature of the area, the likely possibility of land application of litter and the reality of aerial deposition, surface water discharges are inevitable,” the petition states. “Most notably, J-S Ranch will discharge nitrogen pollution to the North Santiam River through aerial deposition of ammonia.”

Simon denies his facility would pollute the groundwater or the river. He said the chicken litter is dry and that he will move it from the barns to a storage shed with a concrete floor. He intends to sell the manure as a soil amendment to enrich farm fields.

He also told the Capital Chronicle the ammonia wouldn’t pose a problem either because it’s undetectable 50 feet away from the barns.

The lawsuit seeks judicial rejection of the wastewater permit, which went through a two-year review. It also wants a judge to require that Simon obtain a discharge permit connected to the Clean Water Act, which prohibits toxic discharges into U.S. waters.

State officials determined that a more restrictive permit was not appropriate in Simon’s case.

Simon accused the plaintiffs of trying to put him out of business. Besides the chicken project, he builds large-scale chicken farms and equips them.

“Their whole tactic is to stall, delay, cost me more money; this is part of the game plan,” he said.

He had hoped to break ground this summer but a petition filed by opponents in June to the state agriculture department and DEQ prevented that, he said. With the likelihood of rain in the near future, he said construction will have to wait.

“It’s on hold until the ground dries out next year,” Simon said.

Simon maintained that opponents are trying to discourage other people from trying to build a large-scale chicken facility in Oregon.

The plaintiffs said they took their complaint to court because their concerns were ignored by state officials.

The (Oregon Department of Agriculture) “assures us that everything will be fine, but you can’t contain the uncontainable – like the noxious fumes and ammonia particles blowing out of a dozen buildings and threatening our beloved North Santiam River and our groundwater. I cannot stand by and wait for disaster to strike,” Eastman said in a statement.

Opponents accuse the agriculture department of favoring large facilities, known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, and of not being strict in the permitting process. This summer legislators convened a group with all sides to examine chicken CAFOs. The group determined that the rules should be reviewed and potentially tightened.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.