Out-of-state animal welfare changes, initiatives spur poultry rush fears
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- Idaho is preparing for the possibility of getting millions of chickens.
Because of looming poultry welfare regulations in California and the threat of cage-free ballot initiatives in Oregon and Washington, Idaho is bracing for a potential onslaught of chicken operations.
"There could potentially be millions of birds here," said John Bilderback, section manager of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's dairy and concentrated animal feeding operations bureau. "There have been rumors of a big facility coming to Idaho."
Idaho has two egg production facilities, in Paul and Preston, which together have roughly half a million chickens. Four hen laying operations are in the works in the Magic Valley area is southcentral Idaho, which is where any influx of chicken facilities is expected to occur.
A major broiler company has discussed the possibility of locating an operation in the Magic Valley area with county commissioners and other state and industry representatives.
Those familiar with those talks won't name the outfit but if it does locate a facility in Idaho, it would be a game-changer.
Matt Thompson of AgTec, an agriculture management and engineering firm out of Twin Falls, said that type of facility would produce about 400 million pounds of meat a year, which is roughly 70-80 million chickens
A bill passed during the 2011 Idaho Legislature transfers authority for inspecting and regulating poultry operations from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to the ISDA.
One of the bill's co-sponsors, Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said DEQ lacks the infrastructure and resources to perform agriculture inspections and regulating and inspecting animal operations is a more appropriate role for the ISDA.
"They have the whole picture of what it is agriculture needs," he said. "They can appropriately advocate for agriculture but also be an advocate for the environment and the citizens of Idaho."
Representatives of state agencies, ag interests, counties and environmental groups began working on a draft rule that would implement the Poultry Environmental Act during a public meeting July 13 in Boise.
A recent deal on national standards for egg-laying hens between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States would trump the California law and stop the voter initiatives in Oregon and Washington.
If the deal becomes law, it's unclear if it would impact the expected influx of chickens into Idaho, but state officials are proceeding with plans to finalize the rule.
The hot-button issue during the public meeting was an idea by the DEQ to require groundwater or leak detection monitoring at every facility. The idea, which was supported by the Idaho Conservation League, would require monitoring wells and didn't go over well with most of the group.
ISDA Dairy/CAFO Bureau Chief Marv Patten said the idea, if included in the rule, would be heavily opposed and taken out by the legislature. He said the standards already included in the rule were more than sufficient to prevent groundwater contamination.
"You're asking operations to go way beyond what is already an acceptable national standard," he said.
Patten floated a possible compromise that would give the ISDA director the option of requiring the monitoring on a site-specific basis if there is a contamination issue.
But ICL lobbyist Courtney Washburn said the way to determine where contamination is coming from is putting monitoring wells where the potential exists.
"I understand chickens are different (than cattle), but poop gets into water," she said.
That proposal, which would come at the owner's expense, may prove to be the most controversial during the rulemaking process.
"The industry is going to vigorously oppose that type of monitoring of all facilities from the get-go," Thompson said.
The issue could come back up during the next public meeting, which takes place Aug. 1 at 1 p.m. at ISDA headquarters in Boise.
The act allows the ISDA director to establish annual fees or assessments for each permittee of no more than 3 cents per square foot, but Patten thinks the fees will be lower.
"If it costs us 1 cent per square foot, that's what the charge will be," he said.