Newly constructed poultry houses in Delaware County, which are contracted to raise chickens for Arkansas-based chicken processor Simmons Foods. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

A set of proposed rules that would prohibit new or expanding large chicken farms from locating within certain distances of homes, schools and water wells is still alive, a month after the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry told the public that it would drop the rules and let the Legislature craft new setback regulations.

The proposed rules — which were thought by many to have been effectively killed after the Board of Agriculture decided not to bring them to a vote during its Dec. 11 meeting — are currently in a public comment phase that began Jan. 2 and runs until Feb. 5, according to Department of Agriculture. A public hearing is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma Board of Agriculture first proposed the setback rules on Dec. 4 after putting a temporary suspension in place on the department accepting applications for new and expanding poultry operations. The board declined to take action or vote on the proposed emergency rules during its Dec. 11 meeting, where former Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said the board would defer to the state lawmakers to create legislation regulating poultry operation setbacks during the upcoming legislative session.

However, at the time of the Board of Agriculture meeting, the proposal had already been submitted by the department to the Oklahoma Secretary of State for permanent rulemaking, according to the department’s communications director Bryan Painter. Following the Dec. 11 board meeting, the rules were not withdrawn.

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The department is now considering whether or not it will withdraw or move forward on bringing the rules to the Legislature for approval. The department is waiting for Governor-elect Kevin Stitt’s administration to be sworn in before making a decision, said Jeremy Seiger, director of the department’s agricultural environmental services division.

Reese resigned as Secretary of Agriculture on Dec. 31 and is now director of government and regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Association of Electrical Cooperatives. Blayne Arthur, who was named by Governor-elect Kevin Stitt as Secretary of Agriculture, has yet to take office. No decision has been made yet by the Stitt administration whether to go forward with the rules or withdraw them, said Donelle Harder, spokeswoman for Stitt’s transition team.

“Blayne has already hit the ground running by listening to Oklahomans in their communities, gathering information, and meeting with all stakeholders to prepare to help guide the Stitt administration on how to move forward with the poultry rules,” Harder said. “We are in the midst of formulating the direction, and we are happy to continue to communicate with you as more details become available.”

Incoming Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur. Courtesy

For more than a year, residents of far eastern Oklahoma have been protesting a boom in new poultry operations in the area, especially in Delaware County. The new chicken farms are the result of Arkansas chicken processor Simmons Foods expanding one of its major processing facilities across the border Gentry, Arkansas.

Nearby residents say the new poultry operations often pop up with little to no warning and have been responsible for water wells running dry, increased tractor trailer traffic on county roads, decreased water and air quality and a nearly ever-present smell of chicken manure hanging in the air.

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.

The proposed rules would require new poultry houses holding 30,000 birds or more to be at least a quarter mile from any occupied residence (1,000 feet for houses with less than 30,000 birds), a half-mile from public schools and outside of city limits, 150 feet from highways and property lines, 200 feet away from streams, 100 feet away from private wells, 500 feet away from public wells and outside of the 100-year floodplain.

During the Dec. 11 board meeting, Reese told the public that the rules had been met with overwhelmingly negative public comments from individuals and groups both opposed and supportive expanded poultry operations. Of the 191 comments received from the public, 142 stated the rules were restrictive enough and 40 said the rules were too restrictive, Reese said. Nine supported the rules as written.

“I am disappointed we were unable to arrive at a consensus,” Reese said during the meeting. “It is a very important, yet highly contentious issue that we worked very hard to address. At the same time, we are happy to punt it to the Legislature.”

During that meeting, the board voted to continue its suspension until May 31 on accepting or processing applications for new or expanding poultry operations with more than 30,000 birds, though that action too proved to have caveats — a day after the vote, the department approved a pending application for a new operation with six chicken houses holding 280,000 birds.

Pam Kingfisher, one of the organizers of Spring Creek Guardians, a group opposed to the increased presence of chicken farms in eastern Oklahoma, said she was “shocked” to hear that the proposed setback rules were still alive, but pleased that they were since there is no guarantee the Legislature will act before the suspension expires.

“I don’t understand the process of the Oklahoma Department of Ag, Food and Forestry’s board and how they make these decisions. It was pretty clear on video and TV and people in the room on Dec. 11 that they had abandoned these setbacks,” Kingfisher said. “We very much need these setbacks. On Dec. 10, when the big ag organizations protested any setbacks, ODAFF’s board just folded up. So I’m just shocked and amazed and happily surprised we get a public opportunity to comment.”

Rodd Moesel, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which had opposed the emergency rules in December based on short public comment period, said he too was unaware that the setback rules were still in play.

“We knew the issue wasn’t dead,” Moesel said. “We thought they (the rules) were withdrawn at the moment for legislative action.”

Moesel said the Legislature will likely address the issue, and there will probably be some form of setback requirements included, though his organization hopes any future requirements will not impact small poultry operations.

“We’re expecting the Legislature to be talking about and to address the issue,” Moesel said. “Since the session is here now, we would favor legislative action and then the Ag Department would create any follow-up rules to act on those.”

Moesel said the Farm Bureau opposed the emergency rules in December because of the short public comment period, and said the Legislature could better address the issue. The organization will likely submit comments on the proposed rules if they are not withdrawn, he said.