One of the many new poultry operations that have recently been established in Delaware County. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

Lawmakers have filed two bills that would create setback requirements for new poultry operations, though at the moment the proposals vary greatly in their respective distance and operation size requirements.

While one of the bills — House Bill 2534 by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa — currently has requirements that are more stringent than those proposed in December by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, the other bill, Senate Bill 873 by Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, currently has requirements that are much less stringent than those proposed by the department.

Both pieces of legislation were spurred by the boom in poultry operations along the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, especially in places like Delaware County, which saw an 81 percent increase in the number of chickens housed in poultry operations between 2016 and 2018, according to Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry data. The increase in poultry operations is attributed to a major expansion of the Simmons Foods poultry processing plant in Gentry, Ark.

Since the expansion began, residents of Delaware and other counties reported new poultry farms appearing seemingly overnight near their residences with little or no warning, water wells running dry, a decrease in water and air quality thanks to chicken litter and increased tractor trailer traffic on county roads.

After a year of public outcry, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture in early December seemed poised to adopt rules that would put setback requirements on new poultry operations with 30,000 or more birds of:

  • a quarter mile from occupied residences
  • a half mile away from schools and city limits
  • 150 feet from public highways or property lines
  • 200 feet away from streams
  • 100 feet away from private wells
  • 500 feet away from public wells and outside the 100-year floodplain

However, at the last minute the Board of Agriculture balked and declined to vote on the proposed setback rules, leaving the issue to the Legislature to decide. Though the department had already been submitted to the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office for permanent rule making.

The board did, however, keep in place a temporary moratorium on accepting or processing applications for new or expanding poultry operations with more than 30,000 birds (though that action had caveats as well), but added an expiration date of May 31, the last day of this year’s Legislative session.

Thus far, only two bills address poultry operation setbacks.

Blancett’s House Bill 2534 would impose the following setbacks on poultry operations with 30,000 or more birds:

  • A half mile (2,640 feet) from 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
  • 1,000 feet from water wells

Murdock’s Senate Bill 873, as introduced, would impose a 500-foot setback on poultry operations with 100,000 birds or more.

Pam Kingfisher, who heads Green County Guardians, a group of citizens and residents who have pushed for greater regulation of the new chicken farms, said the group will be watching and weighing in on the measures as they advance through the Legislature.

Senate Bill 873 in its current form does not adequately address the issues many of the residents affected by the new poultry farms are facing, she said.

“It’s obvious at a glance that the House bill is pro-people and the Senate bill is pro-industry,” Kingfisher said. “I believe our citizens should have priority over the profits of an out-of-state corporation.”

Blancett did not return a phone message from The Frontier on Tuesday.

Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA SENATE

Murdock said his bill is only a “starting point,” and it will more than likely be amended as both sides weigh in on what the setback requirements should be.

“It’s going to morph and change,” Murdock said. “The end product will be different than the beginning product.”

Murdock, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture and Wildlife Committee, said the setback issue is something best addressed by the Legislature, rather than through agency administrative rule making.

“I had promised the Secretary of Ag at that time Jim Reese that this would be the very first thing that’s heard in the Ag Committee so we can get this issue taken care of,” Murdock said. “It’s an issue we need to take care of.”