Chicken plant's water plan lays an egg with neighbors

By Nancy Flores
Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Opening statements began Monday over businessman Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim's plan to pump chicken-processing wastewater thousands of feet below the surface in East Texas.

Pilgrim, founder of Pilgrim's Pride, has been trying for years to get approval to build a chicken rendering plant just outside of Pittsburg but has been stymied by environmental concerns from opponents who include Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

Monday, the two were present in a state administrative court as administrative law Judge Bill Newchurch began hearing arguments about whether to approve a permit for Pilgrim's Pride to build wells 6,000 feet underground to receive the treated water, a byproduct of the slaughter of millions of chickens every year.

If the permit is granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 3.2 million gallons of treated water per day will be injected into the wells.

But adjacent landowners, including members of Ratliff's family, worry that water could leach out of the six injection wells and contaminate ground water supplies. So they asked the environmental commission to order a contested hearing before the judge.

Testimony will continue until Thursday or Friday, when Pilgrim, the colorful multimillionaire who gained statewide notoriety when he handed out $10,000 campaign contributions to senators during a 1989 debate about worker's compensation, is expected to testify on behalf of his company. Ratliff, who is not expected to testify, nevertheless attended Monday's opening statements.

"This will jeopardize the quality of the ground water, and other problems may arise," Ratliff said during a break in the hearing. Ratliff said he was there representing family members, not as lieutenant governor, a position he holds only until January, when he returns to his state Senate seat.

Lawyer Jim Mathews, representing landowners surrounding the proposed plant and wells, said in his opening statement that residents are most concerned about Pilgrim's Pride's previous environmental scrapes, including tangles with the state over wastewater runoff.

"Pilgrim has had a poor history of compliance," Mathews said. "We're interested in the public interest and the existing rights."

But Pam Giblin, the lawyer for Pilgrim's Pride, said the company has a sound compliance record and will have plenty of safeguards against contamination.

"We feel this is safe because the treated wastewater will also have a reversal pump that will be able to retrieve the water if necessary," Giblin said. "We are going to show that this method of injection is appropriate and is the best design for treated wastewater."

Pilgrim's Pride requested the injection permit in 1999, abandoning that same year a four-year effort to get a permit to discharge the plant's wastewater into surface streams. The chicken processing plant would be part of a massive 4,000-acre Walker Creek complex to include other processing facilities and apartments for the company's work force.

The injection permit was protested by adjacent landowners, including the Sandlin family of Ratliff's wife, Sally, and the City of Longview, which has a 50-year contract to draw water from a lake a mile from Pilgrim's proposed wells. The city was not allowed status as an interested party in the hearing, but the landowners have continued to press their claim.

The plant has the support of many Camp County residents and officials, who look to it for economic development and jobs -- as many as 2,000 for the region.

The hearing this week will be a litany of scientific testimony, including expertise from geologists, engineers and designers. After the hearing, Newchurch will make recommendations to the environmental commission members, who could make a ruling within two months.

Ratliff said the landowners have been looking forward to some resolution of the issue.

"We've been doing this for a long time," he said. "I'm ready to get it off my plate."; 445-3627

As of March 2002, UTIMCO has $341,220 invested in Pilgrim's Pride Corporation. Pilgrim's is also one of the largest donators to the GOP, namely Bush.