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Costco chickens

Proponents of a Costco poultry processing operation in Dodge County gathered in April 2016 at a farm near Hooper.

Hundreds of construction workers will be put to work in Fremont over the next couple summers building a massive $275 million facility for producing broiler chickens, and the utility lines and roads to serve it, as well as upgrading the city’s water treatment plant.

“There is going to be so much construction in Fremont I would say you’re going to have five or six hundred construction workers in town between our projects,” Fremont Interim City Manager Brian Newton said during a recent interview.

“This is a massive windfall not only for Fremont, but for the state.”

Yet that potential economic boon also has hatched concerns over how adding 17 million chickens to the region’s already abundant livestock population could harm waterways, quality of life and drinking water.

Critics are sounding alarm bells, saying an accidental discharge from the slaughterhouse and runoff from land-applied manure could foul rivers. They also worry that raising chickens in crowded barns could damage air quality, spread disease and foster the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

“Now is the time to really look at it and ask questions,” said Duane Hovorka, director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. “It’s much more difficult once you’re already in place and up and operating to change the operation.”

Hovorka said Nebraskans should be asking whether next to the Platte River is the right place for Costco’s massive chicken processing plant, which will be run under the name Lincoln Premium Poultry, and whether state rules are adequate to protect the downstream communities and wildlife like the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Costco plans call for a 360,000-square-foot slaughter facility, a 85,000-square-foot hatchery producing nearly 470,000 chicks a day, and a 32,000-square-foot mill that will make 1.314 million tons of animal feed a year. Lincoln Premium Poultry is finishing up the permit process, engineering and signing up farmers, all of which it hopes to have finished by February so it can get the final go-ahead from Costco to break ground in April, company officials have said.

Opponents have suggested increased pollution could put Lincoln and Omaha in a situation like Des Moines Water Works, which is suing three agriculture-heavy upstream counties over nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. Nebraska Communities United, a group that formed to oppose the Costco facility, plans to organize informational seminars in both Lincoln and Omaha in January about pollution dangers.

But officials with both the Lincoln and Omaha water utilities said the Nebraska cities have much different setups than Des Moines, which takes water directly from the river and must filter out heavy amounts of nitrates from farm runoff.

Both Lincoln and Omaha get water from wells near the Platte River, and Omaha has a separate water treatment plant that pulls from the Missouri River.

Lincoln gets its water from wells near Ashland, then pumps it about 26 miles to the city through a network of pipes. The wells get help from mother nature with water being naturally filtered by layers of sediment and sand, said Water Distribution Superintendent Steve Owen.

Omaha Metropolitan Utilities District spokeswoman Tracey Christensen agreed.

“Because they are groundwater plants, it is doubtful that there would be any detrimental effects from a spill into the river,” Christensen said.

Despite those assurances, the water utilities said they plan to closely watch the permitting process through the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, which will include extensive reviews and public comment periods. The company in December filed its first request, an air quality construction permit.

While the utilities say current regulations are adequate, others question whether Nebraska should beef them up.

"This case brings up a conversation that is past due. We need to be better looking at how we are permitting what we are putting into our water to protect public safety," said Graham Christensen, who farms near Oakland and advocates on state environmental issues through his company GC Resolve.

Costco sold 76 million rotisserie chickens in 2014 at $4.99 each in its wholesale discount stores across the nation. But as demand for the savory birds continues to increase, supply has become tighter and costs inched up.

That’s where the new Fremont facility comes in. Lincoln Premium Poultry will control the entire production chain from the chickens that lay the eggs, to the hatcheries, to making feed pellets, to the slaughter.

The only part that will be outsourced is the raising of the chickens.

A network of more than 100 farmers will raise the birds for Costco in a total of about 450 barns, which would each be capable of housing 43,000 chickens. Resulting litter -- a mix of bedding, manure and feathers -- would be composted and applied on fields as fertilizer or sold.

Critics are concerned manure will be applied too strongly or at the wrong time and wash into area waterways causing spikes in nitrates and phosphorus.

Costco has said it will require chicken farmers to make nutrient management plans and file for state permits governing pollutant discharge, even though it’s not required by state law.

Farmers who don’t meet standards will not be allowed to grow for Costco, Walt Shafer, Lincoln Premium Poultry’s project manager, said,

The project would increase the number of broiler chickens -- the kind you eat -- by nearly 20 times in Nebraska over 2012 level of 909,000 birds, which is the most recent U.S. ag census number available. More recent numbers don't get reported because Nebraska produces so few. 

Nebraska would still be far below the nation’s top producing broiler states -- Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama -- which each produce about a billion broilers a year.

Walt said there also will be specific provisions in the grower contracts covering the treatment of animals and strict biological security.

“We want to protect our farmers and our investment,” he said.

Alan Kolok, a University of Nebraska at Omaha biologist, cautioned that despite best intentions, rules aren’t always followed.

“If everyone follows the land applications according to the letter of the law, there will be no problem,” he said. “But that relies on the good faith of a lot of participants and sometimes that doesn’t work out all that well.”

If pollution does become a problem, he said, there is no way to know when the natural sand filters protecting the Lincoln and Omaha water wells could be overwhelmed.

“What is the capacity of a natural system? It’s really hard to get a handle on that,” he said. “What is the point at which that filter is overcome by contaminate load? It’s pretty difficult to say.”

Wastewater from the Costco chicken plant will be treated by the city of Fremont, which is upgrading its treatment facility at a cost of about $25 million. For wastewater treatment alone, the city expects to get $1 million in revenue from Lincoln Premium Poultry.

Wastewater -- nearly 2 million gallons a day -- from slaughter containing blood, fat, manure and other pollutants will first be filtered inside the plant then be pumped to a city-owned anaerobic lagoon nearby to let pollutants break down and settle out of the water before it flows to the city treatment facility.

The covered lagoons -- there will be three -- will also be used by other industry in the area and be built at a cost of $10 million, of which $5 million will be paid for by Lincoln Premium Poultry. Methane from the lagoons will be captured and sold to industries for heating.

Fremont needed to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility regardless -- the city previously has violated discharge limits for suspended solids -- but put off the project so it could incorporate Costco’s needs into its plans, said Newton, who also works as the city’s utilities general manager.

The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has given Fremont until Nov. 1, 2019, to improve its wastewater treatment and forbidden the town from taking on new industrial or commercial customers that would increase flow or loading by more than 5 percent until the upgrades are complete.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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