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

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry approved six new poultry houses in Adair County one day after its board voted to temporarily suspend new applications for large commercial chicken farms, records show.

Some residents who have opposed the expansion of poultry operations in eastern Oklahoma say the department went against its own suspension on accepting and processing applications for new poultry houses by issuing the registration on Dec. 12. Officials at the Department of Agriculture said the application had been submitted and processed prior to the original suspension being put in place in October.

A blanket suspension on accepting or processing applications for new and expanding poultry feeding operations was first approved by the Board of Agriculture on Oct. 8, following outcry by eastern Oklahoma residents.

The boom in the number of new poultry farms that have popped up in eastern Oklahoma over the past year and a half, especially in Delaware County, came after Arkansas chicken processor Simmons Foods announced in late 2016 a major expansion of its processing plant in Gentry, Ark., just across the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. The new and expanded farms mostly raise broiler chickens for Simmons, and houses often hold tens of thousands of chickens each.

Neighbors of the new poultry farms say the farms have appeared with little or no notification.  In some instances, water wells have run dry, water and air quality have fallen and roads have been damaged by increased tractor trailer traffic on county roads, in addition to an almost ever-present odor of chicken litter in the air, residents say.

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On Dec. 11, the Board of Agriculture decided not to vote on rules it had proposed that would have required new or expanding poultry operations to be set back certain distances from homes, roads, schools and other boundaries, after an overwhelmingly negative public response to the rules. The majority of the responses said the rules were not stringent enough.

The board did vote, however, to leave the temporary suspension on accepting or processing new applications in place until May 31, but only for operations with 30,000 or more birds.

Since then, there have been two new applications submitted to the department for operations with under 30,000 birds, said Jeremy Seiger, director of the department’s Environmental Management Services.

“We will receive them and evaluate them against what the current requirements are,” Seiger said. “If they’re less than 30,000 we will continue to process them and accept them and make sure they meet our requirements. If they’re more than 30,000, we’re not accepting them right now.”

However, a day after the board voted to leave the temporary suspension in place for operations with more than 30,000 birds, the department issued an official registration for a new poultry feeding operation looking to build six new houses that would hold more than 280,000 birds, Department of Agriculture records show.

The application, filed by Nhien Ha, of Summers, Ark., had been submitted to the department on Aug. 27, but the department had not officially issued the operation’s registration before the suspension was put in place. The integrator — or company who Ha would contract with to produce chickens — is Simmons Foods, Department of Agriculture records show.

This screen shot of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry’s New or Expanding Poultry Feeding Operations shows a registration was issued on an application on Dec. 12, a day after the department’s board approved a continuing suspension on processing or accepting applications from operations with more than 30,000 birds.

Seiger said the application had been deemed complete prior to the Oct. 8 suspension, and had met all state paperwork requirements prior to the suspension.

“The decision was made in the office to hold off on that one until the coordinating council had time to meet, but it technically was complete before that suspension was put into place,” Seiger said. “We went ahead and issued the license because in all reality, it should have been done before Oct. 8.”

Seiger said the department has spoken with the applicant, who agreed to move its chicken houses and other buildings back away from nearby residents.

Pam Kingfisher, one of the organizers of the Spring Creek Guardians group that has opposed the poultry expansion, said the issuance of that registration after the suspension has left some distrustful of the department.

“That’s a total vote of no confidence from the community,” Kingfisher said. “How can we believe anything they say? They make their own rules, they break their rules and it’s OK. Nobody is holding them accountable.

“It was important to get these final houses shoved into these communities,” she said.

Kingfisher said the process of trying to get acceptable protections in place for residents who live near the new farms has been difficult. She said the May 31 end-date for the suspension is not realistic, as the deadline for legislative bill requests was the week before the Board of Agriculture voted to send the issue to the Legislature.

That leaves few options for bills that would carry language making changes to the way poultry operations are regulated, Kingfisher said.

“The whole thing has been hard to keep up with,” Kingfisher said. “I’m so disappointed, and extremely surprised at the lack of communication and any concern for the citizens and communities of Oklahoma, where these outside corporations have more standing.”