OKLAHOMA CITY — Very few changes have been made to the laws and rules regulating the poultry industry in Oklahoma over the past two decades, despite the proliferation of new large-scale poultry operations in the eastern part of the state, lawmakers were told Wednesday during an interim study.

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ Agriculture and Rural Development Committee met at the Capitol for one of the fist interim studies to be held this year examining poultry management guidelines.

The issue of requirements on poultry feeding operations has been an issue of contention since 2018, when, prompted by an expansion of a Simmons poultry processing plant in Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and especially Delaware County saw an enormous influx of large-scale poultry operations locating in the area.

In addition to several sensitive rivers and streams in the area that residents fear could be affected by poultry waste runoff, those living in the area said they received no notification that the poultry houses were moving in to the area until construction on them began. The houses, which often hold tens of thousands of birds, are a source of multiple issues, ranging from county roads being destroyed by large trucks that service the houses to the overwhelming odor of chicken litter in the air, residents say.

“As these houses came in, I was like every other landowner out there — I thought this is happening, there’s nothing you can do about it. This is just the way it is,” Grant Hall, a Tulsa resident who owns property in southern Delaware County, told legislators Wednesday.

“We were shocked there was no notification, there was no involvement of citizens,” Hall said.

The only requirements for opening a poultry feeding operation is submitting an application to the Oklahoma Department of Food and Forestry with basic information about the operation and paying a $10 application fee, said Teena Gunter, general counsel for ODAFF. Poultry operations must also submit a nutrient management plan — which details how chicken waste will be disposed of — but there are not time limits imposed for submitting those plans, she said.

It is a “rarity” for a poultry feeding operation’s application to be rejected by ODAFF, Gunter said.

The last substantive legislative revision to poultry feeding operation regulation came about 20 years ago, Gunter said, and mostly dealt with regulating how chicken litter, which is often used to fertilize fields and crops, was applied to land.

“In 1998 people were not concerned about the siting of these facilities and where they were located and those kinds of things, people were concerned with the land application of the waste from these sites,” Gunter said. “So virtually everything in that law is aimed toward the land application. What we’ve been regulating all these years is nutrient management plans, making sure people are not putting too much phosphorus on a field and abiding by phosphorus standards.”

“It’s not been until the last three or four years we’ve seen people concerned about the siting of these faculties,” she said.

In 2002 the Legislature passed a bill requiring setbacks from certain public water sources and residences for all corporate-owned poultry feeding operations, Gunter However, that same year, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting those corporate-owned poultry feeding operations, she said.

“In other words, if Tyson owned their own facility, they could not locate in these places. But at the same time, the Legislature also passed a law that said Tyson can’t own a facility,” Gunter said. “So this particular group of setbacks confuse a lot of people because in reality, they don’t mean anything. There are no facilities that are allowed to build that would be subject to these in the state of Oklahoma.”

Since then, all of the new poultry feeding operations that have been established in the state are owned by contractors for those chicken processing companies, she said.

Hall said he and a group of other residents, who later formed a group known as Green Country Guardians, set out to find out “why this influx of mega-houses seemed to have no control.”

It turns out, little in the way of how poultry operations are managed has changed since the late 1990s, he said.

“We’ve seen great changes in the industry and the size of poultry houses since 1999, yet the process has not changed,” Hall said. “State law has no parameters, no tests, guidelines. And yet the growth is overwhelming to the resources, the people and surroundings.”

Though ODAFF adopted rules requiring set backs for new poultry operations near residential areas, wells and city limits, those set backs only took effect in September 2019, after the establishment of the large poultry houses in eastern Oklahoma had peaked, he said.

The only process in establishing the houses is when it applies for a water well with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Hall said. However, the chicken houses often were built prior to putting in the well application, so even if the application was protested by citizens, the operator would apply for a hardship waiver and the OWRB would issue a temporary water permit, sometimes renewing those temporary permits for more than a year, he said.

“It’s very frustrating for people protesting it because the poultry operation continues to go in place,” Hall said.

Hall said he and other residents affected by the poultry houses hoped the Legislature would take the issue up during the next session.

“The agencies, if they won’t respond to the citizens, then we come to the Legislature and ask you to provide help and assistance, passing setbacks and limiting concentration,” Hall said.

Committee member Rep. Johnny Tadlock, R-Idabel, asked Hall whether people who move to rural areas would expect there to be expanding agricultural operations in those areas.

Hall responded that most people in those areas have some form of agricultural operation, such as cattle or chickens, “but when it comes to what is essentially an industrial complex, right now from 6 to 10 poultry houses that are 60 by 500 feet concentrated together, that’s not what people would think of as an agricultural operation.”

Tadlock followed up by asking whether the poultry operations were owned by locals, and Hall responded that most were owned by contractors for large poultry companies who hire people to tend the operation.

“Most of these mega farmers and ranchers who live there, these are people who usually have expertise to be contract farmers for large poultry businesses,” Hall said. “They operate under the guidance, rules and restrictions to build use the product of major poultry companies.”

Committee Chairman Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee, pointed out that the building of a poultry operation significantly increases property tax revenue for the county, and Hall said that it does not offset the damages to the county roads caused by the large trucks that frequently visit the operations.

Hall said he and other residents are not against agriculture, but want an ability to have their voice heard when a large-scale poultry operation plans to move in next door.

“We are seeing a process that doesn’t work, that has not responded to a change in the industry,” Hall said. “The industry has changed and the agencies have not responded to that change. The process of putting these in place have not responded to what that concentration has does to the neighbors who live there.”

During the interim study, Kent Wilkinson, chief of planning and management at OWRB, also stated that OWRB is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to study the Boone and Roubidoux aquifers, which lay under most of northeastern Oklahoma. The study could impact how much water the wells in that area are allowed to withdraw. One of the concerns expressed by residents is that the wells from poultry houses are pulling water out of the aquifer faster than it can recharge.

Trey Lam, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, told the committee that the commission is working on several ways to help mitigate air, water and soil pollution caused by poultry operations, and is working to begin a program that helps agricultural operations and neighbors who are upset about issues caused by those operations come to solutions.

“It should have started already, but the COVID crisis has really gotten in the way,” Lam said.  “We need to get these farmers and their neighbors who are upset across the table.”

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, said after the meeting that she hopes to re-introduce a measure that would have put poultry operation setback requirements into law. Last year, Blancett introduced House Bill 2534, which would have required the setbacks, but it failed to be brought up for a vote.

“There has been no strategic oversight on environmental impact, the concentration (of poultry operations) and how it effects residents,” Blancett said. “For unfettered growth to occur with almost no regulatory oversight is problematic and I think our state government needs to do a better job.”

Blancett also said she believes it is the poultry companies reaping the economic benefits of the state’s lax regulation, rather than local individuals and governments, at the expense of Oklahoma residents and the environment.

“It’s not the industry’s fault,” Blancett said. “We allowed it.”