Protesters Cry Fowl in Tussle with Maricopa County Over Stinky Egg Ranch
Hickman's Family Farms' Tonopah egg ranch stinks — in a literal sense. And that, a group of downwind residents argue, should preclude the farm's vice president of sales, Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman, from having a say in the county's air-quality control.
About half a dozen representatives from the group, which calls itself STOPP, short for Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant, confronted Hickman, who chairs the five-member board of supervisors, at a meeting Wednesday, stepping up to the podium one after another to demand he recuse himself from involvement in any votes or decisions related to county health or environment. STOPP also presented a petition to the board signed by 265 residents of Tonopah, a small unincorporated community about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix, and surrounding communities, including Glendale, Peoria, Phoenix, and Laveen.
"He has no business making air-quality decisions for anybody else when he is such a gross polluter himself," said Dan Mack, chairman of STOPP. "It's such a conflict of interest."
The egg-laying facility, which houses more than 4 million laying hens, has been controversial since it opened in 2014 at Indian School Road and 415th Avenue, a few hundred feet from Tonopah residences, businesses, and natural hot springs.
Last year alone, residents filed 120 complaints with the Maricopa County Air Quality Department about Hickman's Family Farms, according to government records. Sixty-five complaints were filed with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Almost all were odor related.
"It's so bad, it makes you gag," said Linda Butler, a 66-year-old retired teacher who lives in Tonopah, adding that the stench was exacerbating people's asthma symptoms.
Very few of the complaints resulted in violations.
Since the plant's launch, the air-quality department has cited Hickman's three times: once for operating generators without a permit, once for failing to control dust kicked up by trucks driving in and out of the facility on an unpaved road, and once for improperly containing manure during transport, said Bob Huhn, communications supervisor for the air quality department.
When it comes to odor, Huhn said, Hickman's Family Farms is compliant with county codes.
The agency sent inspectors to test for hydrogen sulfide, one of the most well-known culprits for stinking up poultry farms, and the levels were far below the allowable limit, he said.
"We feel like they are doing what they can," Huhn said.
But the county does not regulate another notable odor-causing chemical: ammonia.
In an air-quality complaint filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October, STOPP, which is backed by the national nonprofit Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) and the Phoenix-based environmental organization Don't Waste Arizona, claims ammonia emissions from the Tonopah ranch are more than 20 times higher than allowed under federal law. The facility is now under investigation.
STOPP and its allies argue Hickman could be using his sway as a county supervisor to tip things in his favor. The board of supervisors is required to approve the budget for the air-quality department as well as all of its rules.
"We know positive change for communities impacted by industrial animal feeding operations starts with leaders who listen and respond to citizen concerns," said Danielle Diamond, executive director of SRAP. "The unfortunate fact is Tonopah is in the dangerous position of not having that open channel because their county supervisor has direct personal and financial ties to a major source of community pollution concerns."
Hickman told New Times he already recuses himself when board business directly affects the egg ranch.
In June, after air-quality director Phil McNeely announced plans to revise Rule 320, which prohibits the emission of "gaseous or odorous air contaminants" in concentrations that cause air pollution, Hickman filed a conflict-of-interest letter with the clerk of the board promising to "refrain from voting or otherwise participating in any further briefings" on the topic.
"I hold myself to a very high standard," he said.
But he balked at STOPP's suggestion that he back off from all air-quality and environmental issues.
"I'm not going to do that," he said. "It is my duty to represent the county."