Darrel Urban stands in front of a newly-dug pit the size of two football fields laid end-to-end, and ten feet deep. Soon, it will be full of hog waste, and two more large pits will join it.
A site two miles outside of the tiny town of Pfeifer, Kansas, in the northeast corner of Rush County near Hays, is slated to be the new home of a massive hog farming operation. It will be home to thousands of pigs, and their waste. It is a less than a mile from Urban’s home.
Currently, a hog farm built for 3,800 pigs sits on the site. But the company that bought the property in November, Bison Rush Genetics LLC, plans to expand the site so it is capable of housing 24,000 pigs, according to paperwork it filed with the state. (PDF)
Urban lives just east of the hog farm. You can see his house from the construction site.
“That’s my house right over there, five-thousand and — according to them — eleven feet,” Urban says. “I’m not a surveyor, I just think it’s awful close — let’s just put it that way.”
A group of nearby residents is organizing opposition to the new facility, but has found there may be very little they can do. Like many other states, Kansas has enacted laws giving farmers wide latitude over how to run their operations. Massive confined animal feeding operations generally qualify.
So-called “right-to-farm” laws are meant to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits. In some instances, however, they make it hard for local communities to oppose new operations. All 50 states have enacted some form of right-to-farm law, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.
Officials in Rush County, for instance, say they would have no authority to stop the hog farm expansion, should they want to.
“A county cannot apply its planning and zoning code to a property which is used for agricultural purposes,” says David Rapp, a Wichita-based attorney hired by Rush County’s counselor to investigate the county’s options.
Rapp says that is spelled out in state statutes, and backed-up by opinions from the Kansas Attorney General and the state Supreme Court. The county, he says, cannot even require a building permit.
“The philosophy behind this, is sort of the Kansas Right to Farm statute, the idea that we want to limit the restraint on farming operations,” Rapp says.
Ted Ufkes, the chief operating officer for Professional Swine Management, which will run the expanded operation, says the new facility will comply with all the relevant regulations and requirements for hog farms.
“We believe we have a good track record in meeting—in all cases exceeding—those requirements,” Ufkes says. “That’s why we believe the location is good and believe that some of those concerns are unwarranted.”
Ufkes expects the project to create 22 full-time jobs and generate $70,000 in property tax revenue for the county.
While the group of residents fighting the new facility say they are worried about environmental damage from wastewater and the smell of thousands of hogs, Ufkes says the design of the operation should minimize issues. The waste will be stored in deep pits beneath the buildings—not in open lagoons, like the ones on the current hog farm.
“These buildings are designed differently,” Ufkes says. The barns are “very technologically-advanced set-ups that have been engineered based on time-tested lessons learned in those barns.”
The company’s manure management plan anticipates needing to dispose of more than 7 million gallons of wastewater every year. The plan calls for piping the waste to nearby cropland and injecting it below the surface. In the event of a 25-year rainstorm, however, the facility would be allowed by state and federal law to discharge wastewater into the watershed.
The facility cannot open without a permit from the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment. The agency’s John Mitchell says KDHE would respond to odor concerns only in the event of an actual problem once the facility is operating.
“Our responsibility is to protect water quality in the area, and that’s really the heart of the permit,” Mitchell says, “the purpose behind it.”
KDHE says it is examining the permitting documents. (PDF) Opponents, though, hope they can keep the facility from expanding altogether.
Melanie Urban, another member of the group organizing opposition to the hog farm and not a direct relative of Darrel Urban, says she is worried the facility could cause local property values to plummet. A 2015 report by the Kansas Health Institute (PDF) provides support for her concerns.
“There’s research out there that says if you live within three miles of a facility this size there’s all kinds of increase in health conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, eye infections,” Melanie Urban says. “There’s also depression, because you can’t leave your home. You can’t go outside. You can’t have visitors over. You can’t open your windows. You’re basically stuck to the inside of your house because the smell will be constant.”
Kansas law allows counties to ban corporate hog farms altogether. After a successful petition drive, the county is putting the question to voters on November 7.
Even if residents vote to ban hog farms in Rush County, however, the project near Pfeifer may still go forward. The company running the operation says the project was underway long before the petition drive, so a ban would not apply. The only way to test that idea may be a costly legal battle.
Bryan Thompson is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration covering health, education, and politics across the state. You can reach Bryan on Twitter @KSNewsBryan.