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City‚€™s lawsuit threat against onion plant worries growers


By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

FRUITLAND, Idaho -- The possibility that the city of Fruitland could file a lawsuit against Dickinson Frozen Foods over smells from its onion processing plant here has local growers worried about its potential impacts on the industry.

The Fruitland City Council voted unanimously March 11 to declare the odors emanating from the onion processing plant a nuisance and to begin abatement of the problem.  

Mayor Ken Bishop told the Capital Press the council decision initiates a process of dealing with the issue and could potentially lead to a civil lawsuit against Dickinson. 

"We still hope to avoid that," he said.

Dickinson uses about 15 percent of the onions grown in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon. Onion industry leaders are worried how the city’s actions could impact growers.

"They certainly have a big impact on the onion industry in this area," said Bob Komoto, manager of Ontario Produce, a shipper-packer in Ontario, Ore. "Any time these kinds of cases come up, it does send a little bit of concern through the industry."

Bishop said council took action following complaints by hundreds of local residents that the odor coming from the onion processing plant was a nuisance. 

The Dickinson facility, which also processes red and green peppers, has been in Fruitland for more than a quarter century and the company has generally been a good corporate citizen, Bishop said. However, he added, unbearable odors have been coming out of the facility for about two years. 

The city knows the facility has increased production significantly based on the amount of waste Dickinson has been discharging to the city from its pre-treatment lagoon, Bishop said. 

Dickinson officials did not respond to requests to comment for this article. 

The region around Fruitland is one of the nation's main onion-growing areas. Onion grower Paul Skeen said any loss of production at the plant could potentially have a huge impact on local growers.

"I'm hoping the city will be patient and work with Dickinson to get the problem solved," he said. "I would hate to see us lose a vital part of the onion industry in this area."

While the onion industry has a major impact on the local economy, some people don't understand that, said Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association. 

"That's the smell of money," he said. "That's what's keeping this economy going."

An expert on Idaho's Right to Farm Act said it protects any farmer or ag processor who follows generally accepted agricultural practices from nuisance lawsuits. 

In this case, if a processor has been in business for more than one year, followed all state and federal rules and was not found to be a nuisance when it began operation, it is protected under the act, said Roger Batt, who led a successful attempt to strengthen Idaho's Right to Farm Act in 2011. 

Fruitland enacted an ordinance addressing the odors in 2010 and began issuing citations based on that ordinance last year. However, a judge threw out the citations based on the state's Right to Farm Act, Bishop said. 

The city council's recent decision "is the only tool left to us," he said. 




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