In South Carolina, poultry industry seeks to eliminate barriers to expansion

A bill in the South Carolina legislature would make it significantly harder for residents to challenge the state’s expanding poultry industry. If lawmakers pass the bill, South Carolina will be the latest in a series of states to make it harder for rural communities to resist or even carefully regulate large-scale livestock farming.

The bill, H. 3929, would alter the current permitting process for new poultry growing operations in two key ways. It would remove the ability of the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to require that poultry houses be built a certain distance from bodies of water and wells. It would also state that only residents who live within a mile of a proposed poultry house have standing to challenge any new permit. At present, anyone living within two miles can do so.

The bill passed in the South Carolina House 77 to 12 in late June. The state Senate will take up the bill during its next legislative session, in early 2018.

An earlier version of the bill would have made it even harder for residents to challenge the construction of new poultry houses by requiring anyone contesting a poultry house permit to pay a $5,000 filing fee. Michael Corley, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, says that even in its amended form, the bill is “really egregious legislation” that rolls back regulations that were already “lax” and “lacking.”

Supporters of H. 3929 include proponents of the state’s conventional poultry industry, including the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, the South Carolina Poultry Federation, and the South Carolina Farm Bureau. The main poultry companies contracting with growers in Laurens County, the site of the industry’s current expansion, are Amick Farms and Columbia Farms. Amick Farms is owned by Illinois-based OSI Group, the 11th-largest meat manufacturing company in the world.

Charles Blackmon, a Laurens County resident who lives on his family’s farm, says the politics surrounding the rise of concentrated poultry growing in the region are “tearing [the] community apart.” He recently founded South Carolinians for Responsible Agricultural Practices, a group of concerned residents who challenge permits for new poultry houses in court. There are already 50 chicken houses in a 2.5-mile radius in Laurens County, and 30 more were recently approved.

In 2004, the DHEC completed a water quality assessment of the Little River watershed, which encompasses Laurens County, and found that the water at each of the testing stations exceeded South Carolina state standards on fecal coliform bacteria pollution. Among the major sources of that type of bacteria are runoff and groundwater pollution that can be linked to livestock farming. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were more than 1.2 million broiler chickens grown in Laurens County in 2012.

Two other bills recently introduced in the South Carolina legislature also aim to make it more difficult for neighbors to challenge decisions by industrial or manufacturing facilities to expand or change their operations. Every state restricts nuisance lawsuits in some ways. But John Tynan, the executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, says these new restrictions mean “the little guy” would be “shut out” of discussions around local development.

Michael Corley says that if the two nuisance-related bills and H. 3929 all become law, “there’s not going to be anything stopping a rural community from being overwhelmed” by industrial poultry production and its environmental effects.

Big Ag groups in several other states have similarly made it harder for communities to challenge the expansion of large-scale farming. In 2012, North Dakota enshrined a broad constitutional right-to-farm protection for agricultural producers, barring any new legislation that would hinder livestock production and ranching. In 2014, Missouri passed an expanded version of the state’s right-to-farm legislation designed to shield agricultural producers from environmental regulations.

Leah Douglas, a contributor to FERN’s Ag Insider, is a reporter and policy analyst with the Open Markets Program at New America. She writes and publishes Food & Power, where this piece first appeared.