Dozens of chicken barns, like this complex southwest of David City, were built in Butler County to supply broilers for Costco. The county became a popular location because it has no zoning ordinances. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — A new report suggests that manure-laced litter, removed from chicken barns raising millions of chickens for Costco, is increasing contamination of some nearby streams in eastern Nebraska.
The three-year-long study, facilitated by the environmental group GC Resolve and the Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation, calls for increased testing of contaminants such as phosphorous and nitrogen in streams, as well as sharper oversight over the spreading of the litter, which is used as fertilizer.
Can’t ‘pretend this isn’t happening’
“This does alert us that we need to do enhanced studies and we no longer need to pretend this isn’t happening,” said Graham Christensen of GC Resolve, a regenerative agriculture group that sought the report.
But an official with Lincoln Premium Poultry, which operates the processing plant in Fremont, Nebraska, that provides chickens to Costco, said late Monday that company growers “adhere to the highest level of accountability” and utilize precision equipment to apply litter nutrient “at responsible and appropriate application rates.”
Jessica Kolterman, director of administration for the poultry firm, said the new report even acknowledges that “without knowing the quantity and frequency with which poultry litter is being applied … contaminant fluctuations cannot be meaningfully estimated.”
Christensen of GC Resolve said concerned citizens sought the study due to skepticism about assurances that the dry litter, which must be removed from floors of the massive chicken barns periodically, would not leach contaminants into nearby waterways.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture joined federal officials on Monday in announcing the 14th confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the state.
The latest infection was in a backyard flock in Knox County, in northeast Nebraska.
State Veterinarian Roger Dudley said the affected flock has been depopulated and disposed of in an approved manner.
The agency asked that poultry producers notify NDA immediately of any sick or dying birds.
He said that three years of monitoring of seven locations where the litter was deposited — both upstream and downstream of the sites — suggest that the assurances haven’t held up.
The report stated that counts for selected pathogens, like E. coli and enterococci, violated the acceptance limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency in almost 80% of the samples taken during the study period. Levels of orthophosphate were up to 10 times higher than typical levels of total phosphorus, and concentrations of nitrogen exceeded normal levels even more.
‘So not surprised’
“I am so not surprised,” said John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union. It is consistent, he said, with water contamination found in areas of high concentration of chicken barns in Arkansas and the South.
The report, conducted by a private engineer, Matt Sutton, and financed by a community foundation that Christensen said had asked to be unnamed, was labeled as “tentative” and not broad enough or long enough to draw definitive conclusions.
But, the report concluded that “more detailed study is required to determine responsibility of increased contaminant loads,” including DNA testing to track the contamination to a specific source.
Hansen and Christensen said the findings should be enough to prompt state regulators to increase testing and oversight.
“They should come to the table now and address issues and concerns. It’s long overdue,” Christensen said.
...We no longer need to pretend this isn’t happening.
– Graham Christensen of GC Resolve
A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy said Monday afternoon that the agency had just been presented with the report and had not been approached about its development.
“For that reason, the agency will read the study and take into account any sound science included before providing a response,” said spokeswoman Amanda Woita.
Costco plant opened in 2019
Three years ago, Lincoln Premium Poultry opened a $280-million chicken processing plant in Fremont designed to slaughter up to 2 million birds a week for Costco. The broilers are destined for the big box store’s popular $4.99 roasted chicken special — considered a loss leader for the stores.
The plant was hailed by state leaders for its estimated $1.2 billion yearly economic impact, which included purchases of grain. Costco’s arrival has also spawned a spin-off automation business.
Some residents opposed the project as a risk to the environment due to the millions of pounds of chicken manure generated. Others have questioned how much it would benefit Nebraskans — most of the barns are owned by out-of-state investors.
The new study looked at seven locations in Burt, Butler, Dodge, Seward and Washington Counties where the litter/manure mix was spread on farm fields. Study sites selected were dissected by a waterway.
‘Stream health is compromised’
Testing was done both upstream and downstream of the sites, to get an idea about whether the litter was the main contributor.
“Data obtained in this study shows that stream health is compromised,” concluded the report.
Steve Martin of the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (AFAN) said the poultry industry in Nebraska is much bigger than just Costco, and his reading of the data found contaminant levels just as high upstream of where litter was spread as it was downstream.
“So they’re not really making their case,” Martin said.
Among the recommendations from Sutton was to maintain better documentation of litter application rates and locations, improve public transparency of water quality and increase use of buffer strips and cover crops to reduce erosion and resulting runoff of contaminants.
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