An informal one-on-one informational meeting between area citizens and officials with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) transformed itself into a public question and answer session on Monday night in Eagle Rock.
The meeting, which attracted a crowd of around 130 people, focused on a proposed concentrated animal feeding operation that is awaiting permit approval by DNR. Citizens living in the vicinity of the proposed operation, which is to be built on property located along Highway F between Roaring River State Park and Eagle Rock, have organized in opposition to the project.
Ozbun Farms, owned by Michelle and Rodney Ozbun, is seeking DNR permission to construct four pullet houses on property the couple owns. The houses will be operated under a contract with George's Inc.
After citizens met individually with DNR representatives for about an hour, the crowd remained and filled the fellowship hall at the All-Faith United Methodist Church.
Realizing that several individuals wanted to question DNR publically, Ed Galbraith, director of DNR's Water Protection Program, took the microphone and agreed to answer questions. Galbraith was joined by Rob Morrison, water pollution control branch chief for DNR, and Darrick Steen, agricultural unit chief of DNR's Water Protection Program.
"DNR is trying to protect two interests," said Galbraith. "The people who asked for the permit who have a right to run their business and the interests of those who will be impacted by it."
Some of the first questions asked of the DNR officials centered on the litter that will be produced by the four pullet houses.
"After discussion with the Ozbuns and George's, it is my understanding that the manure will be shipped out of this area and used in row crop areas to the north," said Galbraith.
Steen added that George's had indicated that their trucks would be routed around Roaring River State Park, especially during tourist season.
The Ozbuns said that transporting the litter out of the area was their intention for the first couple of years but that no long-term commitment had been established. Under the permit, the Ozbuns would be allowed to land apply the litter as long as they met state regulations and the guidelines of their permit, which specifies application rates.
"Once the manure is sold, the department has very little regulatory control over it," said Galbraith. "We require they document who they're selling to and how much."
Phosphorus impact on Table Rock Lake, Roaring River and private wells was also discussed. Morrison pointed out that manure was only one contributor to phosphorus in the water.
"Manure has an impact as does commercial fertilizer," said Morrison. "We don't regulate commercial fertilizer and there's many sources of phosphorus that impact water quality."
One citizen asked if the permit had met all the qualifications for approval.
"We can't say today and are weeks away from making that decision," said Galbraith. "But I can say that if the permit does meet all of the qualifications (as laid out by the Missouri Clean Water Law), then we'll have to issue the permit."
When asked if citizen input would have any effect on the permit approval process, Steen was quick to point out that it already had.
"The geological study we conducted at the site was not required," said Steen. "It was an extra step we took, the first of its kind. I believed it would be appropriate in this circumstance based the comments I received during a November meeting of concerned citizens."
According to Morrison, the site evaluation, which was conducted by DNR and not by the Ozbuns, did not find any karst factors, such as sinkholes or caves.
Several citizens worried that by permitting the one operation, DNR would be opening the door to more chicken houses.
"Once it's granted, it's going to keep coming," said Carl Peterson, one local resident who attended the meeting. "I just know it's going to boom and you can't stop it."
Galbraith explained that DNR had no control over how many permits might be approved in the future.
"There is nothing in the state law to let me tell you how many can be built," said Galbraith. "You have moreoptions (of addressing this issue) at the state legislature level than in our department. The county also has power to enact planning and zoning."
Galbraith did admit that his department was working to improve the state's permitting process for animal feeding operations.
"The permitting of chicken houses in the past 20 years hasn't been as good as it should have been," said Galbraith. "Hopefully we're getting better. We're not defending this permit. We just have to balance the interests of the farm and those around the farm that might be impacted."
Questions were also raised concerning how often the facility would be inspected to ensure it was complying with permit regulations. Galbraith explained that there were roughly 250 permitted poultry farms in southwest Missouri and four inspectors covering 25 counties in the region. Based on those statistics, residents could expect a facility the size of the Ozbuns to be inspected once every two to three years.
Morrison said Monday's meeting in Eagle Rock was held for two main purposes - to give citizens a better understanding of the project and offer DNR a way of assessing citizen comment concerning the proposed project.
"We'll take all the comments we received, both written and verbal, and prepare a public response, which will be offered at the time the permit is issued," said Morrison. "The comments can be used to make improvements to the permit application."
Mark Stephenson, who is the Ozbuns' closest neighbor to the east, said he is opposed to the project because he worries about its effect on water quality.
"There is a creek bed that runs on each side of the property, and Roaring River is one mile downhill," said Stephenson. "I also am concerned about odor and the project's effect on tourism and property values.
"We'd like to see the permit denied," said Stephenson, whose family has owned their property along Highway F for 35 years. "That's the only way my property value, or anyone else's in the surrounding area, will remain the same.
"This is the wrong place to build a chicken house, period," added Stephenson.
The Ozbuns were also present at Monday night's meeting. Michelle Ozbun said she and her husband plan to comply with all DNR regulations.
Michelle explained that a separate building would be built for the purpose of storing litter.
"The litter will be totally sealed in the building," said Michelle. "It will not come out even if water runs off the roof. The litter company will come in, clean it up and take it out."
In reference to land application of the litter, Michelle said she only had 20 acres of land on which she could spread the manure.
"At this time, I don't intend to land apply it," said Michelle.
Before seeking a permit to construct the operation, the Ozbuns visited another pullet operation in Seligman.
"It's a totally different operation than raising broiler chickens," said Michelle. "We won't have odor problems like other chicken houses. People won't even know they're there."
The four houses will have the capacity of raising 61,000 pullets, which is half the number of chickens as raised in broiler houses. Pullets are raised for laying eggs and will be kept for a minimum of 21 weeks in the houses.
The Ozbuns said the pullet houses are being built as far back from the road as possible and will only be visible through a line of cedar trees.
"We're getting ready to register this farm as a Century farm. It's been in my family (the Ball family) for over 100 years," said Michelle. "To say I'd do anything to ruin that land is crazy. That farm means everything to me."
According to Galbraith, the department will make its decision on the Ozbun Farms permit application in February. Anyone in attendance at Monday's meeting will receive a letter outlining the decision and DNR will also issue a news release to media outlets.
DNR's decision can be appealed through the Administrative Hearing Commission within 30 days of the permit's approval or denial.
Rep. David Sater attended the first part of Monday night's meeting and left a handwritten letter that was read during the public question and answer session.
In this letter, Sater said he had talked to DNR officials on several occasions and requested that if they had any doubts about ground water contamination in reference to the project that they would deny the permit.
"I can confirm that Representative Sater has personally communicated those sentiments to us and our director, Doyle Childers," said Galbraith. "We also want there to be no contamination of ground water to the lake or wells."
Others present at Monday's meeting included representatives from: George's; Roaring River State Park and the State Parks Division; the Sierra Club; Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services; Table Rock Lake Water Quality, Inc.; and the James River Basin Partnership.
Denny Bopp, district supervisor of southwest Missouri State Parks, offered the park's opinion on the proposed project, which will be located about a mile and a half east of Roaring River.
"We trust our sister department to do what is right," said Bopp. "We have absolute faith they'll follow this through and follow every law and regulation in the state."
Donna Hawkins, who is a spokesperson for the concerned citizens of Eagle Rock, said she was thrilled with attendance at the meeting and its format.
"This meeting was awesome," said Hawkins. "I've always been pleased with what DNR has done. They have been very good about getting information for us."
The main purpose of the meeting in Hawkins' opinion was to offer answers to citizens' concerns.
"We were at a point where people were asking questions that were over our head," said Hawkins. "We don't want anger in this community, but we also don't want to forego our environment."
If the Ozbuns' permit is granted, Hawkins said citizens will continue to "watch and be aware of what's happening."
The citizens group will hold a follow-up meeting at 2 p.m. this Saturday at the All-Faith Methodist Church on Highway 86 in Eagle Rock.
"We'll be talking about where we go from here," Hawkins said.