A row of new poultry houses in Delaware County, near State Highway 412. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

A bill that many residents of eastern Oklahoma affected by the recent proliferation of chicken farms had hoped would set stricter requirements on new poultry operations was declared dead for the session this week by its author after failing to receive a hearing in committee.

House Bill 2534 by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, would have placed tougher setback restrictions on new and expanding poultry operations than the rules approved earlier this month by the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture and those in a separate bill that also appears to have stalled —  Senate Bill 873 by Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt.

Blancett’s bill had been assigned to the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, which was scheduled to meet on Monday afternoon. But the meeting was cancelled by the committee’s chairman Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee, before the bill could be heard. That means the bill will most likely not receive a hearing before Thursday, which is the deadline for bills to pass committee in their house of origin.

Blancett said Kerbs had refused to allow a hearing on the bill after the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture approved its poultry operation setback rules on Feb. 5. Those rules drew criticism as being too weak from some residents affected by the recent boom in poultry operations in the far eastern part of the state.

“I have been very disappointed at this process,” Blancett said. “There has been little real consideration given to my constituents’ perspective regarding setbacks. I know there were very vocal opponents who have attended some of the Ag Department’s meetings but my constituents, like many others concerned about this issue, are reasonable and would have been amenable to some dialogue on the issue, which from what I saw was avoided.”

Kerbs, who was honored along with many other lawmakers last week by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau as a member of the Bureau’s 100-Percent Club — lawmakers who voted for legislation backed by the bureau 100 percent of the time in 2018 — did not return a phone message from The Frontier on Tuesday.

Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee. Courtesy/Oklahoma Legislature

Residents of far eastern Oklahoma have been protesting a boom in new poultry operations in the area, especially in Delaware County, mostly spurred by Arkansas chicken processor Simmons Foods expanding one of its major processing facilities across the border Gentry, Ark.

Residents who live near the new poultry farms say the large chicken houses often pop up with little to no warning and have been responsible for water wells running dry, increased tractor trailer traffic on county roads, lowered property values, decreased water and air quality and a nearly ever-present smell of chicken manure hanging in the air.

The path to establishing setbacks for new and expanding poultry operations has already been a winding one. In October, the Board of Agriculture put a temporary suspension on accepting or processing new applications for poultry operations, following recommendations by the Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth.

A set of emergency rules requiring setbacks were first brought to the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture in early December, but the board declined to take action on the proposal and then-Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said the issue would be “punted” to the Legislature to decide. Though many residents supported setback requirements, many felt it did not go far enough, and the rules were opposed by several agricultural groups, such as the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.

The board did pass a temporary moratorium on the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry accepting or processing new or expanding poultry operation permits until after the legislative session ends on May 31.

However, though the board did not vote on the rules and residents were told it would be up to the Legislature to resolve the issue, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry never withdrew the proposed rules from the official permanent rule making process.

After a new public comment period on its proposed permanent rules during January, the Board of Agriculture brought forward rules for a vote during its Feb. 5 meeting that had significantly smaller setback requirements compared to those that had been put forward for public comment.

The rules approved by the board restrict poultry operations with 150,000 or fewer birds from locating within 500 feet of an occupied residence, while those with more than 150,000 birds would be restricted from locating within 1,000 feet of an occupied dwelling. New and expanding poultry operations would also be restricted from locating:

  • Within 1,000 feet of a school or city limits
  • 150 feet from public highways or property lines
  • 200 feet from a stream
  • 100 feet from private wells
  • 500 feet from public wells
  • A waiver of setback requirements can be signed by neighboring home owners.

Blancett’s bill would have restricted new or expanding poultry operations with more than 30,000 birds from locating within a half mile (2,640 feet) of occupied residences, schools, cemeteries, parks or city limits; 500 feet from public highways or property lines; a quarter mile (1,320 feet) from a stream; and 1,000 feet from water wells.

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA LEGISLATURE

“I fully respect the fact that agriculture is a major economic driver for Oklahoma,” Blancett said. “But asking for a fair conversation about setback requirements for large industrial poultry operations doesn’t make one ‘anti-farm’ or ‘anti-ag’ and I fear that’s how this has been tagged. I think there could have been a greater degree of cooperation and it is unfortunate that that has not occurred, in my opinion and in the opinion of the people I represent.”

Senate Bill 873 Senate Bill 873 by Sen. Murdock would impose a 500-foot setback requirement on poultry operations with 100,000 birds or more. That bill was referred to the Senate Agricultural and Wildlife Committee, which is chaired by Murdock, but it too appears to be on its way to being killed, as it was not taken up by the committee during its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry rules must be approved by the Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt before taking effect.

Grant Hall, a Tulsa resident who owns property in Delaware County and was one of Blancett’s constituents who asked that she run legislation addressing the issues, said the issues caused by the poultry expansion in eastern Oklahoma has spurred many people who have had little interest in legislative or regulatory affairs to get involved and try to make a difference.

“Many of these people, this is their first time being involved in having to lobby, contact or deal with the Legislature,” Hall said. “Not even getting to have a bill heard is very frustrating.”

Hall said the setbacks proposed by the Board of Agriculture do not go far enough to adequately protect the interests of residents who live near the farms.

“In effect, what’s happening is the problem is being passed off. Not only that, it feels like it’s being minimized. We’re told ‘these are better than nothing.’ I can tell you, 500 feet isn’t enough,” Hall said.  “Five hundred feet from a 60,000-square foot poultry house with big fans, and litter can be spread to the property line, that’s not much comfort.”

Rodd Moesel, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, said that his group is against setbacks of any sort for agricultural operations, including those in the ODAFF rules.

“It’s a pretty ground-breaking move by the Department of Ag to do those rules,” Moesel said. “Our member’s policy has been that we’re against setbacks for any type of agriculture, but we do believe in responsibility and think everybody should be good neighbors to one another. Regrettably, there were a few folks that maybe didn’t use as good judgement that they should have, and that’s what brought on the call to do some setbacks and rules.”

Moesel said the agricultural industry in general is facing tough economic times, and that other states such as Kansas are actually in the process of lowering their setback requirements to try and attract new poultry farms.

“We’re exceptionally worried about keeping our farmers alive right now with very low commodity prices, interest up and all the headwinds we’re facing,” Moesel said. “We’re exceptionally worried about the economics in the farm community.”

Hall said he and others will continue to fight for more regulation of the poultry industry in Oklahoma, though it is an uphill battle.

“Basically, as citizens, we’re fighting a problem that has big corporate backing behind it, a lot of power behind it,” Hall said. “This group is growing and it will continue to bring the issue up, to make them aware, to continue back into the legislative process and try and impact the ODAFF board with real stories of real people.”