LORETTA — A group of nearly 20 people gathered in the backyard of a family’s property in this small town Friday afternoon.
Each of the people had questions for Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill. More importantly, they had multiple concerns.
That bevy of concerns boils down to one main point: No large hog farm in our backyard.
Bison Rush Genetics LLC has proposed a large confined animal feeding operation nearly 2 miles southwest of the small town of Pfeifer, just inside Rush County.
The current hog farm would be expanded from just less than 4,000 swine to more than 24,400.
That brings a cause for concern for many in the area.
And it brought Waymaster, who represents part of the region, to the small town of Loretta on Friday to hear from those affected.
Waymaster said he has been in contact with Dr. Susan Mosier, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. But she has relayed to him that the permits for the hog farm are transferable to the new developers.
And that there is no local authority Rush County commissioners can use to necessarily stop it — shy of a public vote.
Waymaster read an email from Mosier that stated the group has followed all necessary steps so far, and is within its legal right to this point.
But residents wanted to know just how KDHE would be monitoring the hog farm, water pollution concerns, wastewater issues, odor, dead pigs and how the lack of local control would affect them.
There’s also a concern about the lack of public knowledge of the proposal thus far.
The Smoky Hill River runs just north of the hog farm, less than 2 miles away. Wells along the river near Pfeifer feed the city of Russell’s water source.
“Why is it so secret?” one woman asked Waymaster.
“It’s one of those cases where it gets established and then it might be too late,” he said. “My house is right along the Smoky Hill River, too.”
“You should be worried, too,” the woman responded.
The current hog farm has been in the location for several years. But residents are concerned during that timeframe, inspections from the state have been lacking.
“I had no idea the last 18 years the guy who owned the property had dug holes all around the area and buried their animals there,” one man said. “I do have a shallow well. … You can’t dig holes all over and bury these pigs and not get contamination in groundwells.”
Another area resident said the current hog farm has brought an influx of vultures to Pfeifer, and those birds roost on the town’s church and cause damage. He said the vultures are seeking the dead pigs at the current farm, and people have had to scare them away by shooting at them.
“We hear (the state) is going to inspect it, but we are a bit skeptical,” he said. “We heard the vultures voted, and they were for it.”
Ken Urban, a Rush County commissioner for approximately the last six years, said there is worry the state is just overlooking all the concerns.
“That raises a flag up about if it’s been checked in 18 years — without the local authority questioning whether they are out here checking things like they should be or if they’re just rubber-stamping it,” he said.
“If the permit is granted, as long as (Mosier) is secretary, they will be out here checking,” Waymaster tried to reassure the group. “It’s brought to their forefront, so they will be keeping a close eye on it.”
Ellis County would have no say in the matter of the hog farm since it is located in Rush County. Pfeifer is in Ellis County near the southern line.
Still, there are concerns for Ellis County as well, especially with large trucks and equipment traveling on roads to and from the much-larger hog farm.
“My concern is the roads, and how do they plan on getting to the location?” said Bill Ring, director of public works in Ellis County.
“What’s going to happen to my bridges and roads when they run heavy trucks on them?”
“There’s going to be road damage somewhere,” said Melanie Urban. “It’s not only about water and the smell, but also about the county roads we drive on.”
A narrow two-lane paved road leads south out of Pfeifer, and a small paved road leads east out of Liebenthal that could be used to reach the site. That still involves driving a few miles on county roads, too.
Ring said he had concern about where the operation would be coming from, whether using Old U.S. Highway 40 or U.S. Highway 183 — on top of the county roads.
Ring noted Old 40 has had issues with heat and heavy vehicles this summer already, and said he has spoken to the public works director in Rush County, who has similar concerns.
“We don’t know how we are going to manage it,” Ring said about maintenance of roads.
Urban also noted two people in Pfeifer recently were diagnosed with MRSA, and there hasn’t been a found cause for the cases.
She’s heard hog farms can carry diseases that can be transferred to humans.
Local water sources being contaminated from the large increase in swine also are a concern.
“I have four little ones,” said Emily Billinger, who lives in Pfeifer with her husband, and noted everything from drinking water to her kids running through a sprinkler could be affected. “Secretary Mosier, she probably just thinks there are old farmers out here. … We actually have quite a few kids in Pfeifer. They can’t come into contact with the water (if it’s contaminated). … Everything we do with the children would change. That might not be a main concern for her, but it needs to be brought up to Secretary Mosier.”
The current hog farm has four enclosed buildings and two cells for wastewater retention.
The proposal calls for four new buildings and a roofed mortality compost facility to be built. Two of the buildings would have concrete manure pits, and the other two would be connected to the existing wastewater retention wells — according to the water pollution control permit.
The company has begun digging at the site for development and is listed as having an address in Carthage, Ill.
“This is too big of a decision to have without a local voice,” one man said.
Waymaster said he would talk about the concerns with Mosier and Jackie McClaskey, the state’s agriculture secretary.
“I have quite a few (questions) I need to relay back to Susan,” he said.