ric Simon expects to start construction on this property this summer to raise 3.4 million chickens a year for Foster Farms. (Photo by Kendra Kimbirauskas)

The Oregon Department of Agriculture has approved a controversial industrial chicken farm in Linn County, provided it meets a few conditions.

The department said plans for J-S Ranch, which projects raising 3.4 million chickens a year for Foster Farms, can move forward as long as the owner, Eric Simon, obtains a stormwater construction permit from the Department of Environmental Quality, a water supply plan from Oregon’s Water Resources Department and a road permit from Linn County before its launch.

He also has to ensure that contaminants don’t pollute the groundwater, the department said in a statement. 

Simon plans to build 11 barns 60 feet wide and about 650 feet long on a 60-acre property in Scio. Because of the size of the operation, he needs a confined animal feeding operation or CAFO permit from the Department of Agriculture, showing he will safely manage the waste. Simon said in his permit application the ranch will produce 4,500 tons of manure a year.

Simon welcomed the approval, which he expected.

“We knew it would go this way and that we were on the right side of the law,” Simon told the Capital Chronicle. “We’ve been frustrated that it’s taken so long.”

Simon filed for the CAFO permit in August 2020. 

Neighbors and environmental groups campaigned against the facility and another one in the nearby Jordan community that plans to build 16 huge barns to raise about 4.5 million birds a year, also for Foster Farms. That operation, Evergreen Ranch, awaits its permit from the Agricultural Department. 

A third facility is awaiting approval from Marion County to build. Industrial farms need county and state approval to operate.

The department received 140 comments on the Scio ranch, with many people opposed.

“The state approval comes after nearly two years of review, consultation and collaboration with Simon, the public and partner state agencies. The CAFO permit process includes a public review, hearing and comment period. ODA extended the review and comment period on the J-S Ranch proposal in response to high interest,” the department said.

Opponents include Kendra Kimbirauskas, who owns a small farm in Scio with her husband. She said she was disappointed in the decision – but not surprised.

“We had hoped that they’d take into consideration how terrible of a site this is and the potential for air contamination and public health concerns. But they didn’t. And that’s unfortunate,” Kimbirauskas told the Capital Chronical.

Kimbirauskas said a grassroots group, Farmers Against Foster Farms, will continue to fight the operation through “the public process.” The group urged opponents to write to Gov. Kate Brown, requesting a moratorium on industrial farms. They also said voters should write to local legislators. Brown did not meet with opponents as they had requested. 

A month ago, Farmers Against Foster Farms, the advocacy group Willamette Riverkeepers and the Center for Food Safety petitioned the state Department of Land Conservation and Development to ban industrial farms on “high-value” farmland, like the nutrient-rich soil in the Scio area. The agency has 90 days to decide.

Simon is optimistic

Simon expects the remaining permits – from DEQ and Linn County – to go through. DEQ has held public hearings on the stormwater construction permit, which drew dozens of opponents. Dylan Darling, a DEQ spokesperson, said the permit is pending. “We asked them to clarify a few details, add new labels to a few items, provide a detailed project timeline and add some details regarding the proposed stormwater pond,” Darling said.

Simon said he will soon submit a traffic access study to Linn County for the traffic permit.

“It’s a very minor thing,” he said.

Kimbirauskas said the semi-trucks hauling manure and chickens out and bringing chicks in could increase accidents on Jefferson-Scio Drive, where the ranch will be located. She said the road is busy, winding and dangerous, prompting hundreds of accidents.

“We are talking about adding a tremendous number of semi-trucks to a road that is already extremely dangerous,” Kimbirauskas said.

Locals are also concerned about air quality. 

“Industrial chicken farms release tremendous amounts of ammonia gas,” Kimbirauskas said. “They have to blow it out with these giant fans otherwise the chickens will suffocate.”

Opponents worry about pollutants contaminating listed fish in the nearby North Santiam River, and they fear toxins could seep into their groundwater. Everyone in the area drinks from private wells, Kimbirauskas said. 

Simon is confident that won’t happen. He said he’ll put down up to 6 inches of shavings to absorb the waste. He said when chickens are shipped off to slaughter, machines will gather the shavings into a pile and heat them to destroy pathogens. He said he’ll spread them out again and add fresh shavings before bringing in a new flock of chicks.

The Agriculture Department, however, is requiring a “two-step” process during construction. Simon has to show that bacteria cannot permeate the ground floors of the chicken barns and get into the groundwater. The barns will be on compacted soil, without a concrete barrier underneath.

“Before any animals arrive at the facility, several groundwater protection measures must be in place before operations begin,” the department said in a statement. “A compaction study must address concerns about the integrity of the poultry house floors, ensuring there is no transmission of nutrients and bacteria into groundwater. Static groundwater monitoring wells will also ensure that the groundwater levels remain at least 2 feet below the floor of the poultry barns.”

A department spokeswoman said it is not unusual for the agency to add conditions to a CAFO permit.

“ODA works hard to ensure that waters of the state are not affected,” said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, the agency’s communications director.

Simon expects to start construction this summer with intentions to start operation in a year.

“The weather hasn’t been conducive to move dirt yet,” he said. “We’ll let things dry up a bit more.”

The agency will conduct several inspections of the facility during construction and afterward, it said.

“ODA and DEQ will continually review monitoring data to ensure compliance with the permit and additional requirements,” the department said. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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