TOPEKA — Last year’s public outcry over a proposed Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Leavenworth County wasn’t enough to keep the Kansas Senate from advancing a bill Thursday that would allow industrial chicken farms to house more birds closer to homes and communities.
Senators passed Senate Bill 405 on a 30-9 vote. The bill would increase the number of chickens a producer could have in a concentrated area by changing the formula for determining the number of birds allowable. A Kansas State University professor estimated the metric would allow eight chicken barns to be built together. The Sierra Club of Kansas contends 11 barns could be built in close proximity.
A desire to bring large-scale poultry producers and the jobs they can offer to the state drove support for the bill, but opponents argue the facilities are harmful to the environment and communities. Anti-Tyson residents from several northeast Kansas counties successfully beat back a plan the chicken giant proposed last year to build a $320 million facility processing 1.2 million birds per week in Tonganoxie.
Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin Democrat and outspoken critic of the Tonganoxie project, called Project Sunset, voted against the bill. He said “big chicken is coming home to roost in Kansas” and called the Senate “chicken” for passing the bill.
Holland attempted to amend the bill to give local residents a say when poultry producers build barns in their area. The Tyson plant in Tonganoxie would have used chicken houses within 50 miles, placing chicken houses in neighboring counties, such as Douglas, where Holland lives. His amendment would have allowed residents of those counties to file petitions against large chicken barns.
“Some in this body may want to worry about what’s good for industrial interests,” Holland said. “I’m going to worry about what’s good for our citizens who are in Kansas and pay their taxes and send their kids to our schools and die in this state.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, signed onto Holland’s amendment. He said the Tyson project in Tonganoxie was not well-received because residents were caught by surprise. State and local officials drew Tonganoxie to the state under the banner, Project Sunset, and didn’t disclose the government incentives they offered.
Opposition to the Tyson plant stemmed from concerns over the company’s checkered environmental record and the economic, traffic and public infrastructure impact the area would see. Area residents said a Tyson plant would threaten the areas water and soil quality.
Tyson Foods operates a beef plant in Emporia, but Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, the Republican who represents the area, said the company had not caused consternation there.
Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican, said there are at least 50 cattle feedyards and three meatpacking plants within 50 miles of his home, but people are used to them. He said treatment and handling of livestock has improved in recent years.
“You do not get those smells of animals,” Estes said. “You do not get travelers coming into Dodge and taking a big whiff and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, let me out of town.’ It just doesn’t happen anymore. So the assumption that these coops, that these chicken farms are going to be smelly, dangerous, disease-riddled operations is just absolutely not correct.”