County, residents battling approval of chicken project

Ponoka County and a group of concerned residents are lobbying the Natural Resources Conservation Board to overturn a decision approving a huge poultry operation near scenic lakes.

Ponoka County and a group of concerned residents are lobbying the Natural Resources Conservation Board to overturn a decision approving a huge poultry operation near scenic lakes.

Bernice Edwards, a member of the Friends of the Chain Lakes, fears that allowing the 95,000 broiler-chicken operation to set up next to a wetlands that serves as headwater to the lakes will put them at risk.

Area residents are concerned that the manure spreading that will need to take place could contaminate the three lakes — which are popular with fishers, boaters and swimmers — that stretch south beginning about 10 km southeast of Ponoka.

“Our concern is keeping these lakes clean. The more they allow these CFOs (confined feeding operations) to come too close to this region, then their big problem is: where do they put their manure.”

There are already a number of confined feeding operations, including a pair of dairy farms and a pig farm, within five km and all must find land to spread their manure. The spreading is happening closer to the lakes each year and adding a huge poultry operation only adds to the problem.

“The question is, where are they going to spread it? Primarily, it’s the biggest concern now.”

The topography of the area — the lakes are quite low — increases the risk of tainted runoff reaching nearby water bodies, she said.

The lakes are home to much wildlife, fish and fresh water shrimp, and an important stop for migrating birds.

“If we get into trouble with polluting these lakes, we are in big trouble.”

Also upsetting residents is that the NRCB approved the application by Henk and Gerrie Krijger, of Zealand Farms Ltd., even though the poultry operation falls within a 1.6-km watershed protection area established by the county around the lakes. The protection area prohibits confined feeding operations.

“That CFO has been approved in an area that was outlawed by our county years ago,” she said.

The Friends of Chain Lakes are rallying residents to request the NRCB review its decision. The deadline for requests to review applications is Jan. 28.

Gerrie Krijger would say little about the opposition to their proposal. “I just want to say we have a permit and that’s it.”

Ponoka County manager Charlie Cutforth said county council is not happy with the decision and also wants a review.

“I am under instructions to write a letter to the NRCB advising them, certainly, of our dismay with the decision,” he said.

Cutforth said the municipality does not argue that the NRCB has the authority to make decisions on confined feeding operations, but council is concerned its voice does not seem to have been heard.

“It’s certainly frustrating that it doesn’t appear that our input isn’t necessarily recognized, and may not be appreciated — I don’t know.”

Cutforth said the municipality’s biggest concern is that the lakes are a draw for residential development and allowing confined feeding operations so close to an area that will inevitably attract more homes will only set the stage for future conflicts.

“Even if we had no restrictions, why would you want to put a large intensive livestock operation in an area where a lot of people are and create a target of yourself. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Accommodating farmers and those just looking for a country home is not easy.

“The problem is they want to farm in the same areas for the same reasons that the people want to live there. And they aren’t necessarily compatible. So it’s a real struggle for us.”

NRCB approval officer Francisco Echegaray addresses the one-kilometre zone in his decision summary. It notes the county’s policy “requests” the NRCB not to approve confined feeding operations within one kilometre of the lake, which suggests it is not an “outright or absolute exclusion policy” and the NRCB has some discretion in deciding whether to allow them.

The application is consistent with the county’s Municipal Development Plan, which zones the area agricultural, and meets all the requirements of the province’s Agricultural Operations Practices Act.

Scott Cunningham, an NRCB approval officer out of Red Deer, said the county can request a review if has concerns with how its rules were interpreted.

He couldn’t comment on the specifics of the decision beyond what is already in the summary while the review period is still open.

“It would be inappropriate for me to provide other information in a realm that may influence their (a potential review board’s) decision,” he said.