Efforts to renew a wastewater permit for a shuttered chicken slaughterhouse in Creswell are raising concerns among some locals that the plant will reopen and the area will soon be home to more industrial chicken farms.
The public has until Aug. 31 to submit comments to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality about a water discharge permit for the plant owned by the California-based Foster Farms. A public hearing to be held over Zoom is set for the end of the month.
The permit would allow Foster Farms to discharge treated wastewater to an unnamed tributary to Camas Swale Creek, between Creswell and Eugene, that flows into the Willamette River. It sets conditions for testing and treating the wastewater for solids, bacteria, oils and grease and several other contaminants before discharging.
Foster Farms bought the slaughterhouse in 1987. It hasn’t operated since 2006, but Foster Farms is asking for a renewal of the permit, last reviewed in 2015, to “ensure environmental compliance with current regulations were the plant to ever resume operation,” the company said in a statement. For now, it claims it has no plans to reopen.
Lindsey Hutchison is an attorney with Willamette Riverkeeper, one of three environmental groups that petitioned the Department of Environmental Quality to extend the public comment period from Aug. 4 to the end of August so more people could weigh in.
“It’s incredibly important for DEQ to hear how the local community feels towards this,” she said.
Hutchinson, along with representatives from the Center for Food Safety and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project say that because the plant has been closed for so long, it should be required to apply for a new permit, which would call for more extensive environmental review than a renewal.
“We hope DEQ uses its discretion and doesn’t approve this renewal for a lack of sufficient information,” Hutchinson said.
Linda Minten, a member of the group Farmers Against Foster Farms, fears the renewal request signals the company’s eagerness to expand chicken production in Oregon.
She said she does not believe Foster Farms will sit with an empty slaughterhouse.
“I trust the chicken guys about as far as I can throw them,” she said in an email.
Minten lives in Linn County, where two chicken farms have recently requested or received permits to operate confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. One, J-S Ranch, was recently approved to raise nearly 3.5 million birds per year for Foster Farms. Another, Evergreen Ranch, is waiting for approval to raise 4.5 million broiler chickens per year for the company. Minten and others in the group worry the operations will pollute the air, groundwater and nearby Santiam River. They also fear the slaughterhouse will prompt more industrial facilities.
“They are going to need a whole lot more of these huge facilities to produce enough chicken,” she said.
Bill Mattos, president of the Northwest Chicken Council, said the plants fill a gap left by the loss of smaller chicken farms during the last 15 years.
“In the next decade, I don’t think you’re going to see a wild amount of these built,” he said. “What this growth is, is it replaces what we’ve lost.”
Mattos said to meet the demand in Oregon, the state would need to produce about 80 million broiler chickens a year, more than twice as many as the 35 million produced annually now.
But Minten said this doesn’t explain why the company would want to reopen its Creswell slaughterhouse.
Foster Farms has sent Oregon chickens to its slaughterhouse in Kelso, Washington for the past 16 years, and that factory is not operating at capacity, according to Mattos.
The United States Department of Agriculture approved international exports from the Kelso plant in 2019. Members of Farmers Against Foster Farms worry that Foster Farms plans to ramp up chicken production on the West Coast for export.
Foster Farms only exports 1% of its production, sending mostly chicken feet to China, Mattos said. Its competitors, such as Perdue and Tyson, export up to 30% of their chicken products internationally on average, Mattos said.
In June, Foster Farms was bought by Connecticut-based private equity firm Atlas Holdings, and former Tyson CEO Donnie Smith was named Foster Farms’ new CEO.
Atlas leaders visited Oregon twice in June and July, Mattos said.
Legislative work group discusses CAFOs in Oregon A group of lawmakers, environmentalists, and supporters and opponents of industrial chicken farms has been meeting to review the state’s process of permitting chicken CAFOs. Chaired by state Sen. Michael Dembrow, it was formed in response to concerns among small farmers and residents of Linn County who say the Oregon Department of Agriculture is too lax in approving permits. They say proposed sites should go through a comprehensive environmental review. Dembrow said the group has discussed Foster Farms’ activity in Oregon. Whether or not it constitutes an expansion of the industrial chicken industry and the company in Oregon is “unsettled at this point,” Dembrow said.
The group last met July 27, and will meet again in September.
Dembrow said Oregon has some of the strictest rules in the U.S. for operating CAFOs, but he said some are outdated.
“Our standards are superior to those states in the south, in the southeast,” he said, which produce more chicken. Georgia and Arkansas, for example, produce more than a billion broiler chickens annually, according to The Poultry Federation, an interstate trade organization.
“They don’t have our levels of scrutiny,” Dembrow said. “But considering increasing drought conditions, I am concerned especially about the water side of things.”
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