Critics concerned chicken project will damage water, but company says it's manageable

Dec. 7, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Signs for and against a proposed Costco chicken processing plant (nickname: Project Rawhide) posted in the town of Fremont in northeast Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Nebraska is known as the beef state. Meat production is a huge part of the state’s agriculture industry. But a proposal that would jumpstart the chicken business here has some residents concerned about the potential impact on the environment.

On the south side of Fremont in eastern Nebraska is a gravel road that runs along an empty cornfield. Look one way and you see the Hormel pork processing plant. If you go about a mile the other direction, you run into the Platte River. This field is where Costco, the warehouse retailer and grocery chain, wants to build a chicken slaughterhouse. And it would be a big one.

To make sure the plant is humming year-round, Costco wants new farms around Fremont to raise 17 million chickens every year. As of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there were less than a million broilers - chickens raised for meat - in the whole state.

Randy Ruppert opposes the project as part of the group Nebraska Communities United. He doesn’t want the roads crammed with truck traffic or smelly chicken barns dotting the countryside. The groups is also concerned about unfair farm contracts. And there’s the issue of the manure, or litter, the chickens will leave behind.

“Millions of pounds of chicken litter every year that will be spread on our fields as fertilizer,” Ruppert said. “Our concern is the increased nitrogen levels and the phosphorous levels that are going to be put into our waterways here.”

Chicken litter is composted manure, feathers and bedding. Farmers can spread it on fields as fertilizer to help grow their crops. The litter can replace expensive synthetic fertilizer and add organic matter to the soil.

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Randy Ruppert of Nebraska Communities United is concerned that if the manure from chickens raised for Costco is mismanaged, drinking water quality in cities like Fremont, Lincoln, and Omaha could suffer. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

The problem is nutrients from manure can also run off into rivers or leach into groundwater. It’s happened before. That’s in part how the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland became polluted. Hog manure in Iowa contributes to the high nitrate levels threatening the Des Moines water supply. Ruppert says the Costco project takes Nebraska down the same road.

“Will one plant bust the bubble? Don’t know,” Ruppert said. “But the bubble will bust as it did in Iowa.”

The Fremont chicken plant has financial appeal to many area farmers. Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company leading the Costco project, says more than enough farmers have shown interest in raising chickens. A contract to grow poultry could provide a much-needed income stream in a time of low grain prices. But the company says farmers who sign a contract will be asked to go beyond the letter of the law to minimize the impact on the local water supply.

For example, each chicken farm will have to acquire a permit from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality even though it would not be required by law.

“D.E.Q. does not require it. We are going to require it,” said Walt Shafer, project manager for Lincoln Premium Poultry.

Shafer says farmers under contract to grow chickens will also have to follow a nutrient management plan. The farmers will be audited and graded by the company each year.

“That is beyond what is required of our producers, but in essence they’ll know how much litter to apply, where to apply it, when to apply it, how to store it, the cover crops on the ground, and it will be substantiated by soil testing,” Shafer said.

Shafer hopes to break ground on the processing plant in the spring, after all the designs and permits are complete and Costco gives the final go-ahead. Costco says it does not comment on future locations.

Fremont is an ideal location for the chicken project because there is plenty of corn for feed nearby. But it is also close to the state’s two largest cities. About 5-10 miles down along the Platte River from where the Costco chicken plant would be are the well fields that supply drinking water to Omaha and Lincoln.

The Metropolitan Utilities District in Omaha and the Lincoln Water System both say they are closely watching developments with the Costco project, but aren’t worried about a direct threat to the cities’ water supplies. The nitrate levels in the Platte River are generally low, they say, and the wells provide a layer of protection.

“We get a lot of natural attenuation or natural treatment through all of those sand layers that the water flows through,” said Steve Owen, water production manager for the Lincoln Water System.

Owen says the sand and gravel act like a filter. It’s a big difference from Des Moines, which takes its water straight from the nitrate-heavy Raccoon River.

But Alan Kolok, a biologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, wonders how much pollution that natural filter can handle. Kolok studies water quality on the Elkhorn River, which also flows near Fremont. He says that river already shows spikes in nitrate and phosphorous levels when it rains in the spring.

“There will certainly be a saturation point in the natural filter to filter out contaminants. And when it supersedes that then those contaminants can very well end up in the drinking water supply,” Kolok said.

It’s up to the water utility to test and treat the local water to ensure it’s safe.

Kolok says these are the issues that come with raising livestock to feed our hunger for meat in the 21st Century. It’s just that Costco, and the residents of northeast Nebraska, are next in line to face the question of how to deal with them.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the response from Costco.


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