Critics Try to Shut Down Arizona's Hickman's Eggs Plant with EPA Complaint

Critics of Hickman's Family Farms filed an air-quality complaint this week with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their latest attempt to shut down the company's massive egg-producing facility in Tonopah.

Since Hickman's opened the plant a year ago at Indian School Road and 415th Avenue, critics say, the air around Tonopah's tiny downtown has been filled with a foul stench. Area residents and business owners tried unsuccessfully starting in 2013 to block the facility from getting built. Now they're pushing forward with an EPA complaint that targets the company's emissions of ozone-producing chemicals and ammonia at the new Tonopah plant and another Hickman's egg facility in Arlington, a rural town about 10 miles south of Interstate 10.

"Without federal intervention, we see a harsh and unhappy future for our lives, our land, and our health," said Linda Butler, chairman of Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant (STOPP), in a written statement.

Two other groups filed the complaint jointly with STOPP, Don't Waste Arizona, and the national nonprofit group, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.. In an eight-page letter to top EPA officials, the three groups ask the feds "to investigate and ultimately revoke" air-quality permits at the two facilities, which would prevent them from operating.

According to the opposition groups, the Tonopah facility houses 4.3 million birds but  eventually will be expanded to to 10 or 12 million, while the Arlington facility contains eight million hens and four million pullets, which are chickens less than one year old. The Tonopah plant already emits slightly more than the EPA's limit of 100 tons per year of ozone-creating volatile organic compounds (VOCs), while the Arlington plant emits about 288 tons per year. Together, both Hickman sites are "currently the top VOC stationary source in Maricopa County," the complaint states.   

The groups claim that ammonia emissions, meanwhile, are least 2,677 pounds per day from the Tonopah facility alone. The EPA requires that ammonia emissions greater than 100 pounds per day must be reported, but Hickman's isn't reporting properly, the complaint states. The omissions not only make Hickman's EPA air-quality permit applications "incomplete," but officials with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Maricopa County "have failed to acknowledge the industrial and commercial activities taking place at both sides such that they should not be categorized as primarily 'agricultural' operations."

The groups want the EPA to conduct investigations at both facilities, require the company to obtain a new permit with more stringent requirements, and "invoke any justifiable fines and penalties."

"The size and scope of the Hickman operations produce huge amounts of poultry manure, overwhelming odors from numerous layer buildings and open waste ponds, and the hazard of potentially bacteria-laden feathers blowing through neighboring properties, residential neighborhoods, and local businesses," the complaint letter says.

Mike Wirth, owner of the Saddle Mountain RV Park just south of the Tonopah plant, recalls a meeting a couple of years ago about the then-planned facility with brothers Glenn and Billy Hickman, who own the company with their brother, Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman.

"They seemed like nice guys," Wirth says. "They said it would bring jobs. I said, 'How are you going to keep the stink off us?'"

"They said it would bring jobs. I said, 'How are you going to keep the stink off us?'"

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He said he was told that "new technology" would reduce odor. No official public hearings were held or needed to build the plant because the land was already zoned for agricultural uses.

A year and a half later, the site is packed with multiple buildings, millions of chickens — plus a plague of flies and "brutal" smells, Wirth says.

"I call them all the time and tell them they have no conscience whatsoever," he says.

He believes the Hickmans have at least $50 million invested in the facility and admits shutting down the business is an unrealistic goal. Yet the plant is incompatible with the nearby RV park and the small downtown at 411th Avenue and Indian School next door to the new facility, he says. His hope is that the egg company will ultimately buy his RV park, as well as other businesses.

"The whole town will be destroyed over time," Wirth says.

Billy Hickman, vice president in charge of the 71-year-old company's Arizona operations, says operations at the new plant continue to be "fine-tuned."

"We want to be good neighbors, and we want everybody to eat our eggs," Hickman says. "We're listening to residential complaints."

At the same time, he says, "We built an agricultural facility on agricultural ground."

No doubt, he acknowledges, some of the neighbors' complaints are valid concerning increased truck traffic on Indian School Road since the plant opened. But he notes that the area already had lots of trucks coming and going because of a nearby truck stop and that recently paved surfaces at the facility had reduced dust.

As for the air-quality, Hickman says the plant already receives oversight from state and federal agencies. He says he doesn't want to minimize the concerns but suggested the problem with flies and odor isn't what some say it is.

Hickman disputed the numbers in the complaint, saying that the Tonopah plant has 2.8 million chickens, not 4.3 million, and that, at most, it would have 5.3 million in the future. By the end of the first phase of construction, which is still ongoing and won't be done until 2017, the plant will contain up to 4.4 million chickens, he says.

Yet some area residents claim the problem's bad enough already.

Bonnie Hanelt, a board member of the Tonopah Valley Community Council, says the stink from the new plant is terrible — and she lives five miles east of the plant.

"At night I can't be outside," she says. "When the wind's coming from that direction, it gags you."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern