It has been dubbed “Big Chicken“: the revolution in how poultry is raised and processed. Chicken that once came from small, family farm operations is now produced by networks of huge chicken-growing complexes and sprawling processing plants.
Texas is a major player, ranking sixth in the nation for poultry production. But with the growth has come concern over how concentrating the operations could increase pollution: the run-off from tons of manure and the millions of gallons of wastewater released by processing plants into streams and creeks.
“We do our dead level best to operate not only in an environmentally-friendly manner but certainly consistent with the permits and the rules and the regulations we’ve agreed to follow,” said Mike Cockrell, CFO of Sanderson Farms. The Mississippi-based company is one of the nation’s biggest chicken producers and among several big corporations processing chickens in Texas.
In 1997, Sanderson Farms opened a processing plant in Bryan. A decade later, it opened another one in Waco. Each can handle over a million chickens a week. The plants use millions of gallons of water to clean the chicken carcasses and the plant itself. The wastewater is treated on-site before it’s released into streams and creeks. Some makes it’s way to the Brazos River.
The wastewater contains nitrates which, like fertilizer, are nutrients that can make plants grow. But too much in waterways can upset a delicate balance, allowing algae to grow and overwhelm other life forms including fish.
An advocacy group, Environment Texas and it’s umbrella organization Environment America, crunched the numbers reported to regulators. They found that of pollutants discharged into Texas waterways by all industries, poultry processors were among the top sources for sheer volume.
“When people think of farms they think of the old mom and pop family farm. But these have turned into giant corporate, mechanized facilities that generate huge amounts of waste,” said Luke Metzger, Environment Texas’s founder.
Metzger was talking not just about the processing plants but the hundreds of poultry “growers” scattered in nearby counties. The growers (Sanderson Farms alone said it uses 300 of them in Texas) are usually contractors, providing the millions of chickens for processing.The concern is the tons of chicken manure they generate. Rainwater runoff can potentially carry the nitrate-rich manure into streams and creeks.
The industry contends that poultry pollution is not a threat.
“I’m not an environmental engineer but from what I do understand, I don’t think the level of nitrates we produce as a by-product in our industry and in our plant specifically would raise any concerns among the scientists who study this,” said Mike Cockrell, the Sanderson Farms executive.
The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for poultry pollution but in Texas, the agency told StateImpact it has seldom taken “significant” enforcement action, citing just one case against a poultry grower in 2009.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board both have jurisdiction over agricultural pollution. The agencies are currently revising the Texas Nonpoint Source Management Program. The program’s goal is to reduce water pollution to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.
“Nonpoint” sources of pollution are not single, large “point” sources like industrial plants but rather smaller, more numerous ones. The TCEQ told StateImpact that past legal challenges have led to chicken growing operations being included in the “nonpoint” category and therefore not subject to stricter permitting requirements.
Environmental groups have been arguing that big, chicken growing operations are indeed point sources of pollution and should be more strictly regulated. Texas will be finalizing its “nonpoint” plan in coming months and will submit it to the EPA for approval.
As the poultry industry expanded from it’s original roots in East Texas, communities have also found reasons to be concerned.
“The smell rolls in like a fog,” said Dan Franks, a homeowner in Limestone County where poultry farms multiplied as the processing plants expanded into the region.
Franks said state regulators had responded to his and his neighbors complaints about the odors but that it didn’t seem to him there was much the state could do.
“I think they’re handcuffed by the regulations,” Franks said.
In Leon County, Jean Hagerbaumer lives on a secluded 12 acres.
She’s a few miles from the nearest poultry farm and not as affected by the odors, but worries that concentrating so many farms and their manure can’t be good. And, she said, it can’t be justified by what some in her community hoped the poultry industry would bring.
“Oh, we’re going to create jobs,” Hagerbaumer said was the belief in the community. “That justifies everything. That and expanding the tax base.”