By late March, spring Chinook have already begun their journey up the Santiam River and its tributary the North Santiam. Like natural clockwork, the salmon travel up the river through the town of Scio, ducking into creeks and tributaries such as the scenic Thomas Creek to spawn and ensure the survival of their offspring.
The river offers everything the salmon need for survival. Its cool, clear water has breathed life into its fragile and vibrant river ecosystem, while sustaining farming communities along its banks, for generations.
Scio, a town of under 1,000 people located 18 miles northeast of Albany, has built its local farming economies on the river’s health and preservation, but with an influx of factory poultry and changing times, all of the above is in peril.
Foster Farms, a multi-billion-dollar poultry giant, has begun expanding its presence in Oregon and has Scio circled on its map. Community members and grassroots organizations are the only obstacles standing in the way — it’s a classic David and Goliath.
“It all began over a year ago when I found out that there was going to be a 3.5-million chicken factory moving in adjacent to our farms,” says Christina Eastman, a founding member of Farmers Against Foster Farms. “We have three farms that have been in my family since 1951. I’m a third generation farmer.”
Two of Eastman’s three properties back up to the North Santiam River.
“When I heard they were going to put those birds over there, my first concern was: river,” Eastman says.
Some community members say they couldn’t believe it. They say the proposed area just seemed so unsuitable, so inappropriate for a project like this.
“I couldn’t imagine that any farmer would do that,” Linda Minten, a fellow member of the coalition, says. “It’s so close to the river, and it’s so wet and marshy here.”
Community members say private equity firms have been in fast pursuit of vacant properties in the area, which they purchase and transfer to Foster Farms. The transactions are predicated on one criterion: river access.
Within the last year, Foster Farms has unveiled plans to develop complexes on the banks of the Santiam River, as well as Thomas Creek.
Once developed, properties like those proposed will house millions of chickens. Community members and activists say these inflict a plethora of environmental, public health and economic concerns, while providing only a handful of jobs and virtually no benefits for the surrounding communities.
“These are automated facilities,” says Eli Holmes, staff attorney for the Willamette Riverkeeper. “Foster Farms has a lot of technology that the person running the facility is required to have: automated fans, automated lights, so you really don’t need many people at all to run these.”
Where dairy operations can employ up to 30 people, poultry farms utilize a meager five to 10 employees.
But to Holmes, who’s worked on hundreds of these cases, that’s just one of many downsides to these projects.
She tells the story of a household adjacent to the lot on Thomas Creek, whose tap water started running brown just a day after the poultry giant next door broke ground for a new well. Developments in Delaware and North Carolina and throughout the Southeast and Midwest, she says, serve as proof of what harm these projects can inflict.
Oregon has been lucky, avoiding massive industrial poultry spilling into the state while the rest of the nation has dealt with the consequences. But recently, industrial poultry has started knocking at the door, and according to Minten, the state doesn’t really have the laws to slow down the mounting advance.
“We don’t really have a lot of these in Oregon, and they’re trying to push into one of the most ecologically sensitive river areas that we have,” Holmes says of the poultry factory farms.
The location for the proposed multi-million chicken complex in Scio is a wetland, and the lot floods regularly as the Santiam rises and falls throughout the year. According to Holmes, manure will be stored on site at the complex without a firm plan to prevent water contamination.
The height and speed of Oregon’s rivers have grown far less predictable over the years, marking yet another hazard as projects like these move forward.
“What would they [Foster Farms] do, especially given the fact that things are becoming more volatile with climate change and the impact and frequency of high-water events?” asks Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper executive director. “There is definitely some likelihood that in the case of the North Santiam, they could end up with water all the way across their floodplain. And then where do the chickens go? Not to mention, the manure.”
In recent years, 25 to 30 acres of the Eastman family’s property have become river bottom.
“Where they’re proposing to put these chicken barns is 400 yards from the North Santiam River,” Eastman says. “But the river keeps carving away the land, and it’s heading straight there.”
Typically, these complexes utilize a pair of large industrial fans, one at each end of the buildings, that work to expel excess feathers and particulate matter from the area.
But once airborne, these particles can easily end up in the river.
Feathers and manure both carry bacteria that can damage rivers and freshwater ecosystems, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization.
This particular stretch of the North Santiam would be especially susceptible.
“If you look at the proposed facility along the North Santiam, it’s immediately across from what is really an awesome natural area called Wiseman Island, and most of that is owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife,” Williams says.
The area is home to vulnerable and protected species.
“We’ve done some sampling and surveying in Thomas Creek, for example, which has its issues, but it has a relatively robust population of wild fish, and as a consequence there are thousands of freshwater mussels,” Williams says.
The mussels are called Western pearlshell. They can live and grow to be over 100 years old and the size of your hand, and they play a vital role in these river systems. But as important as they are, they are every bit as vulnerable.
They are filter feeders, which makes them highly susceptible to bacteria and particulate pollution in a river system.
According to river mussel research from Purdue University, “High concentrations of pollution, bacteria and sediment in rivers make mussels sick and can kill off entire populations.”
In addition to environmental harms, these projects present an array of public health concerns, including effects on safe drinking water. Several towns receive their drinking water supply from the North Santiam River watershed, including the 170,000 residents of Salem.
Scio gets the majority of its drinking water from two groundwater wells located at either end of the town. And while that may seem less likely to be polluted by the practices of these facilities, they’re still vulnerable.
Holmes says Foster Farms is planning to dig unlined storage pits for manure at the locations in Scio, which are positioned near shallow water tables. The threat of groundwater contamination is very real if adequate measures are not made by the property owner and company to mitigate seepage.
But Farmers Against Foster Farms and Willamette Riverkeeper face yet another opponent in this case: the state.
According to federal and state laws, projects like these are supposed to undergo a harsh permitting process, where the county and the state conduct reviews in order to examine the intended use and potential effects of the project.
But Holmes says that rather than doing that, the county hasn’t done enough substantive review.
“They’ve just been letting them slide through,” Holmes says.
She adds that the state is not putting Foster Farms through a protective enough permitting process.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, Foster Farms is required to submit precise information to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in order to receive a Clean Water Act construction permit, which is mandatory for them to break ground.
Holmes says that the DEQ is acting on inconsistent and inaccurate information from the company.
“We’re here to hold them accountable to provide the information that they need to provide,” Holmes says.
Part of the game plan for Farmers Against Foster Farms and the Willamette Riverkeeper legal team is to buy time. Given the state’s lack of history with these kinds of corporations, the laws weren’t designed for this, and need time to catch up.
“We’ll stop at nothing to wake up the state officials, because the state officials can stop this until our laws can catch up,” Eastman says. “And that’s been the problem: we’ve never seen these mega corporate, giant facilities.”