Assembly sets regs for large feed lots

Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2002

If meat producers are to locate large-scale animal feed lots and processing plants in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, they'll have to adhere to new land-use restrictions adopted last week by the borough assembly.

With no real zoning powers with which to ban such operations outright, as was suggested by some, the assembly took what steps it could to limit their size and require they minimize impacts on residential areas and air and water quality.

Concern that feed lots might pollute salmon streams led the assembly to include a provision requiring operators to "prevent all water contamination."

Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, have poor environmental track records in other states. The assembly said it wanted to prevent such occurrences here, but noted the borough has no way to judge safety measures a large animal feeding operation might employ.

Instead, it passed an ordinance setting up a task force to review applications and requiring, among other things, an engineering analysis of proposed farming operations before a permit is issued.

Ordinance 2002-14, adopted by a 6-3 margin, requires a permit application fee of 20 cents per head, legal descriptions of the land, a site plan and detailed information about manure handling. It also mandates that applicants have all necessary federal and state permits in hand before applying for a borough permit.

The three-person task force appointed by the mayor would include one person from local industry, a member of the borough planning commission and a resident of the unincorporated borough.

The new law arose in direct response to a proposal by a Soldotna man who believes the peninsula could support a large-scale pig farm that would ship its product to Asia.

Dick Metteer, president of Alaska Pork Project Inc., said he could operate within the law's restrictions. However, he also said the law ignores available innovations and new technology that could make such farms clean.

"We are very fortunate today in Alaska that we have this new technology," he said. "We don't have to be afraid of it."

Metteer said there are methods available for capturing methane from pig manure for use as a fuel and turning the solids into pellets to be sold as dry fertilizer, avoiding such methods as spreading pig waste on fields or letting it sit in giant ponds, methods that have led to serious pollution problems and sometimes horrendous odors surrounding animal feeding operations in the Lower 48.

"Yes, there have been problems Outside," he said. "We don't want to do those."

He said retooling an existing large-scale meat-raising facility would be a costly affair for giant corporate farms Outside, but building a high-tech operation from the ground up in Alaska would be "a whole different story."

Metteer said he believes a large pig farm could make money despite the cost of installing new technologies for avoiding air and water pollution.

He envisions a pig farm producing some 60,000 tons of meat a year to be shipped out of Seward or possibly Homer to Dutch Harbor and from there to Japan and the rest of Asia. It could mean hundreds of jobs on the peninsula, he added.

Opposition to a pig farm of such proportions was nearly universal, however, according to members of the assembly who said they'd heard from their constituents.

Assembly member Gary Superman of Nikiski said he'd gotten "a long, steady stream" of e-mails and calls opposing pig farms in the borough. Still, he said he was not ready to vote for the ordinance yet. It lacked any reference to best-available technology, among other shortcomings, he said. Joining him in voting no were assembly members Grace Merkes of Sterling and Paul Fischer of Tustumena.

But six others supported the measure. Sponsor Bill Popp of Kenai said terms of the law were based on testimony before the assembly and on research by the legal department and others that included a look at how such laws have been written in other states.

Popp said it soon became apparent the borough government lacked the expertise to pass judgments on feeding operations and if the assembly tried to write an ordinance that did that, they'd be at it for years.

"The simple point of this is to create an ordinance that makes use of government structures, state and federal processes that are out there. ...," Popp said.

The ordinance requires those applying for borough permits to have cleared the bar of state and federal regulations first.

As for the 20-cent-per-head fee, Popp said he wasn't about to saddle the borough with the cost of creating technical opinions. The fee produces the necessary oversight money, he said. Rather than passing judgment, the ordinance provides a process for using logic and fact to arrive at a conclusion on specific applications, he said.

"These operations do have a history, a bad history in some cases," he said. "I look at this ordinance as an opportunity to give borough citizens a say as to whether they want this kind of operation in a given location anywhere in the Kenai Peninsula Borough."

Pigs can produce as much as 10 times the waste as the equivalent number of humans, according to Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. He said federal laws are insufficient and called the ordinance "a step in the right direction."

"We have a richer natural environment and are more dependent on natural resources here," Ruffner said. "I don't think this kind of operation is appropriate in Alaska in general and on the Kenai Peninsula in particular."

Bob Shavelson, director of the Homer-based watchdog group Cook Inlet Keeper, also applauded the effort, but said the ordinance might not go far enough. He said 1,000 pigs, the threshold figure required to place a farm under the terms of the ordinance, is too high.

The ordinance also sets minimum numbers for several other types of farm animals. The figures were set so as not to impact existing small family farms.

Could the borough just ban large animal feed lots?

Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said that might be problematic.

"The answer is we could try," she said. "We probably would get sued."

She said the borough would have to demonstrate that the farm was severely detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of borough residents.

Metteer said he was not discouraged by the ordinance and expects to be able to meet any of its provisions. His next step, he said, is to acquire the necessary land on which to start a feeding operation.

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