Area residents air chicken house worries
About 135 residents of Delaware, Cherokee and Mayes counties raised questions during a July 29 community meeting at Eben Ezer Lutheran Church in Oaks regarding chicken houses. KELLY BOSTIAN/TULSA WORLD
Suzzanne Maupin sits on her front porch, which has a direct view of new constructed chicken houses across the street from her home in Leach. KELLY BOSTIAN/TULSA WORLD
Former Tribal Councilor Curtis Snell talks about the 50 chicken houses near his home during a July 29 community meeting in Oaks. KELLY BOSTIAN/TULSA WORLD
Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Natural Resources secretary, raises a point during a July 29 community meeting in Oaks regarding chicken houses in the area. KELLY BOSTIAN/TULSA WORLD
OAKS — Frustration and worry filled the air as about 135 people packed the pews and stood at the back of Eben Ezer Lutheran Church in Oaks on July 29. The area residents said the number of contract poultry houses in eastern Oklahoma has grown exponentially, and they made it clear that the number of concerned people is growing, as well.
They want something done about the chicken houses, and they want it done now.
“We’re feeling the crunch of a crisis happening. The train is just moving on out of the station, but we hear those urgent concerns. … We will find a way to deal with this,” said Pam Kingfisher, who led the meeting and runs the Spring Creek Guardians Facebook group, the central communication portal for the effort.
“They’re popping up like popcorn off a hot road,” said Emily Oakley, a local organic farm owner who spearheaded the effort that led to the formation of the Guardians and ultimately stopped construction of a farm at the nearby Oaks Mission. “This is an urgent issue.”
The afternoon meeting ran three hours but still was not long enough to address all the concerns of residents about unending traffic from large trucks leaving clouds of dust and roads in need of repair, air filled with the smell of chicken litter and incinerators burning carcasses, the potential for streams and wells to be polluted by chicken litter, and home water wells going dry from what they see as a commercial use of local aquifers.
For the most part they did not hear what they wanted from representatives of the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, who outlined the sometimes complicated and time-consuming processes of changing state rules, save one word — “injunction.”
Some people who are running for political office came to speak at the meeting as well and they offered another word — “vote.”
The increase in chicken houses comes with the planned construction of an upgraded Simmons Foods poultry processing facility about 25 miles away, north of Gentry, Arkansas. It is set to open in 2019 and expand to full capacity by 2022.
Of 41 new poultry farm permits listed statewide by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry website for the past year, 16 licenses (for 96 new houses) are listed for Delaware County.
Emotions ran high at times. Suzzanne Maupin, 72, was moved to tears as she spoke about her family heritage and history in the area. Six chicken houses, each about 500 feet long and 50 feet wide, were built about 300 feet from her front porch this summer and are ready to rear tens of thousands of chickens. Six more were built across the road from her church.
“I can’t escape the chicken houses,” she said.
People expressed frustrations at chicken houses “springing up” without residents’ knowing they were coming and then being at a loss as to whom to contact with their concerns.
Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Natural Resources secretary, was the first official to address the meeting. She set the explanatory theme with a listing of agencies’ purposes and contacts, although she came armed only with enough copies for about half of the much larger than expected crowd.
CN Council members also spoke and assured the audience that the tribe is aware of the issue and exploring options.
Teena Gunter, general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, offered an explanation of existing regulations, which drew audible groans for their lack of power.
Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reece was in attendance but did not speak during the meeting.
One of Gunter’s challenges was to explain the difference between the less restrictive permitting and licensing rule for poultry houses under Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act, which involves dry waste such as poultry litter, and the much more intensive rules under the state’s Confined Animal Feeding Operations (such as hog confinements and stockyards), which involve continuous water supplies and lagoons.
Groans and exasperated huffs met her explanation of the time required to make regulatory changes or pursue a legislative fix to the Poultry Act.
“What can we do now?” a resident asked.
“Certainly you can hire an attorney as a group and seek an injunction; that’s a possibility,” Gunter said. “I can’t advise you whether that would go or not, but that’s the logical step if you want to do something right away.”
Jonathan Allen, assistant general counsel for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, explained water well permitting requirements and assured residents that the Roubidoux and Boone aquifers are now under a hydrological study, although it will take three years to complete.
About a dozen hands went up when Kingfisher asked how many in the group have had problems with home wells running dry. Residents expressed frustration that the poultry operations are allowed to self-monitor their water consumption.
Allen helped with information about reporting problems and emphasized that residents need to be armed with specifics to justify any suspicion that an operation is using more water than allowed. General complaints about low water in a home well might not get very far, he said.
“We accept the (poultry operation’s) reporting unless we have cause to believe otherwise,” Allen said.
Politicians addressing the audience included Ed Trumbell, a Democrat from Grove, and incumbent Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, both running in House District 5, and Oklahoma Attorney General candidate Mark Myles, a Democrat who put in a word for gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson with a promise to attend a future meeting.
Oakley seized upon the information given to dozens of people in a single setting and urged them to attend future meetings, planned for Aug. 12 and 26, and to hit their email accounts and pick up their phones.
“If everybody in this room just calls one person,” she said. “Call the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture with a question; call the Water Resources Board with a well question; call the Governor’s Office; call the Attorney General’s Office. If everybody in here does that, that is extremely powerful, because that just doesn’t happen every day.”
– REPRINTED WITH PERMISSIONWith chicken houses across the road, she prays for 'no chickens'
BY KELLY BOSTIAN
LEACH — “I was thinking about all the struggles we’ve had to go through here,” Suzzanne Maupin, 72, said as she talked about coming to tears in a community meeting about poultry-growing operations in eastern Oklahoma.
On July 29 she sat on a chair in the shade outside her front door. She opened a county history book and shared the photos and story of meeting Sen. Robert F. Kennedy when she was a teacher at the old Lowery School in 1968. He was on an education tour. Kennedy was assassinated just four months later.
A Cherokee with a lifetime in the area and roots back to the early 1900s, her emotions stem from the history going back to the Trail of Tears and from family who have dealt with sickness in recent years. Her husband died in 2000. She has struggled against cancer — and won. Her niece struggles with a lung disease.
“I shouldn’t have done that, get all emotional at the meeting,” she said as she sat about 300 feet from the row of six new poultry houses across the gravel road. Her front door is just 65 feet from the driveway where trucks will be rumbling in and out, loaded with chicks, chickens or chicken litter.
She doesn’t have anything against the people who will run the farm, she said. But the chickens and what they bring, the smells and the dust in the air, what might happen with her water well — it all scares her.
“They brought a box of chocolates to my neighbor,” she said. “They told her they wanted to be good neighbors.”
Six more chicken houses recently were built just across the road to the north of Twin Oaks Baptist Church. It’s 3.5 miles from her home. She passes 30 chicken houses along the way.
“It’s just the idea of it, having chicken houses right next door to a church,” she said. “Shouldn’t that be against the law?”
– REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION