After a final meeting of the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture in December and the transition to a new administration this year, changes to poultry operations have continued, and Delaware County residents say they’re feeling left out.
New houses have been approved in recent weeks in spite of a suspension on new houses, and a company made it known in a Sallisaw meeting that it wants dozens more. Bills addressing poultry issues will soon be introduced with the new legislative session this week, and the state Board of Agriculture meets Tuesday with new Secretary and Commissioner Blayne Arthur at the helm and with poultry house setbacks on the agenda.
The future of the community Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth, created cooperatively by The Cherokee Nation and Gov. Mary Fallin’s administration, also is unknown.
“We’re still just continuing to play catch-up,” said Pam Kingfisher, an organizer behind Green Country Guardians. “The industry and Ag, they’re the big movers and shakers, and they’re way down the road ahead of us and we just keep running and screaming behind the truck.”
The group is making some visible marks of its own, however. A new billboard for tourists westbound on U.S. 412 greets them with the image of a chicken on one side and pipes with colored water pouring out on the other and the message, “Protect OK families from AR Chicken Pollution.”
A second billboard is planned for the Illinois River area off scenic Oklahoma 82.
“I think we might have the pollution pouring into a canoe for that one,” Kingfisher said
On Sunday the group met for a “sort of Politics 101,” Kingfisher said.
“There are two bills coming on poultry setbacks we’re looking at, plus one that is supposed to be trying to protect smaller operations, but the big thing we want to do is help everybody understand how to best work with legislators and be as effective as possible,” she said. “Kind of a Politics 101.”
Proposed setback rules, first addressed in a public meeting at the board’s December meeting and still open for public comment until Tuesday, are up again before the board at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in Oklahoma City at 2800 N. Lincoln Blvd., said Department of Agriculture Communications Director Bryan Painter.
After an influx of new poultry house construction in the area in the past year and objections raised by residents of, primarily, Delaware County, the state put a suspension on issuing any new permits for poultry operations on Oct. 8. The citizen-industry involved Poultry Council was created and solutions sought, among them emergency rules to address placement of the houses.
Chief among the proposed rules are setbacks that would require at least a ¼-mile distance from residences to poultry barns, composters or other carcass disposal areas, litter sheds and other buildings associated with operations of 30,000 birds or more. Smaller operations of 30,000 or fewer birds would have a 1,000-foot setback.
With negative feedback from residents and from industry representatives, the board in December said discussion would continue and indicated the rules may come down to legislative action.
“In our view, the setbacks were a start but didn’t go far enough and didn’t address things like distances to schools and churches and cemeteries,” Kingfisher said. “It didn’t address at all the biggest problem for our county, which is the concentrations of them, how many of these barns can be placed where they entirely surround neighborhoods.”
Adding to the group’s suspicion of the process, two new houses for an operation under the integrator Aviagen that would hold a total 22,000 birds were approved Dec. 18 in spite of the suspension in place. Six more under a Simmons Foods integrated operation, for 282,000 birds, was deemed to have submitted its paperwork in time even though the suspension went into effect while the permit was pending.
“Because the registration was completed before the original suspension on Oct. 8, it was approved per direction of the previous agency director,” Painter said via email.
Painter said the previous administration approved one other application and has two others pending because the operations involve fewer than 30,000 birds each.
As reported by the Sequoyah County Times, local leaders, bankers and officials from Aviagen Inc. met with Cherokee Nation officials and Arthur on Jan. 11 in Sallisaw to learn more about the suspension and when it might be lifted.
Kingfisher said the Guardians group has not been in a meeting with the secretary and that local members of the Coordinating Council have not met or heard about future plans since the change in administrations.
“The Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth was created by Governor Mary Fallin in 2018 and provided direction to the previous agency director,” Painter stated. “There is no update on the status of the Council.”
Kingfisher and another Guardians organizer, Brandy Whaler, objected to that explanation.
“When the suspension was put in place, absolutely nothing was said about approving houses with fewer than 30,000 birds,” Whaler said.
“This is just another way for the Department of Ag to spit in our faces. This goes to show they can make up new rules anytime they want but won’t do it to help our communities. They only care about the corporations,” she said.