I was drawn to move back to Lincoln eight years ago after spending my childhood here and living elsewhere for 40 years. Lincoln is a great place to live with excellent outdoor recreation opportunities, entertainment possibilities and educational institutions. Our City Council and mayor often provide visionary leadership with plans and action to match.
Recently, the city welcomed a Costco retail facility, long hailed as a champion of employee rights, as the company pays a livable wage and provides health care benefits. And among many other products, they sell inexpensive rotisserie chickens, for which two people I know in different parts of the country have quoted the amazingly low price of $4.99.
But along with this retail facility has come the largest U.S. chicken operation to date under construction near Fremont.
Costco’s chicken operation will consist of a chicken processing facility, a feed mill and a hatchery all on the floodplain of the Platte River, just upstream from the drinking water intake wells for the city of Lincoln. There, 1.7 million chickens will be slaughtered each week receiving chickens from over 450 factory farms with 43,000 birds per farm within a 14-county region surrounding the plants, as noted at a water-quality forum last year.
There, a new waste treatment facility is being built by the City of Fremont. With these plans, approximately 17 million chickens will be coming to the area, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Lincoln Premium Poultry has been hired to manage the contracting and operations of the enterprise. And although they have made innovative requirements in their contracts with farmers, such as the requirement to raise chickens with no antibiotics or hormones, there are many concerns.
Each chicken to be processed will require a lot of water. The Elkhorn, Platte and Missouri rivers' water systems are ultimately dependent on Rocky Mountain snow melt for annual replenishment. As the climate continues to warm, some winter snow events are being replaced with rain events within the Rockies. Spring-time weather conditions will often arrive earlier -- all resulting in less snow melt over time feeding the river systems.
Levels will be less sustainable during hotter and drier summers. What are the plans to deal with drought? If we have another drought as in 2012 and Lincoln claims its water rights to protect our drinking water, what happens to the plant’s operations?
To deal with massive amounts of chicken litter, many farmers will be spreading it on their land.
Many farmers now spread animal waste on their land, a prominent source of nitrates. Nebraska’s waterways are already polluted with nitrates. This project could add additional nitrates, phosphates and harmful bacteria coming from the plant and the barns. Furthermore, experts at the forum noted many parts of the country with chicken farms suffer from phosphorus-induced algal blooms toxic to humans and animals alike. There has been little public discussion of these risks.
The facility will add treated wastes to the Elkhorn River whose waters merge with the Platte just upstream from Lincoln’s intake wells. We have 43 wells located in an area near Ashland.
Dr. Alan Kolok, former director of environmental health and toxicology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, recently stated at a Lincoln City Council hearing that, with these arrangements, Lincoln Premium Poultry and Costco are "playing Russian roulette with Lincoln's water supply.”
The City Council and mayor could call for a legal injunction on the plant’s construction until an independent, non-industry-related party makes a public health assessment and a complete environmental review of these concerns and others.
So far, unfortunately, occasional talk has been followed by no action. Lincoln deserves far better.