Arizona Residents Spar With Hickman's Egg Farms Over Smell, Health Concerns

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 10:46am
Updated: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 4:16pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
The sign outside of Hickmans Family Farms in Buckeye, Ariz.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A recent portrait of Sonia Lopez and her six children.

To live out in the countryside is to accept what comes with the landscape: for example the distinct smells of farming and livestock. But, when a farm with 3 million chickens comes to the area, it’s more than just an occasional whiff of manure.

"I moved over here more than 20 years ago and then we bought this land because we were thinking about the future, our kids," said Sonia Lopez, of Tonopah.

Tonopah is a rural spot about an hour west of Phoenix. Hickman’s egg farm was built in Tonopah across the street from Lopez's property in February 2014.

She bought the house and property to build a life with her six children. Now, she rarely spends time there because of the proximity to the egg farm — and the smell it brings.

"I mean there’s no future no more, for me, there’s no future," she said. "Who’s going to want to buy this house in front of that — the smell is horrible."

She also said her youngest son is suffering from bad asthma, and thinks it has to do with the air.

"I take him to the doctors because he gets really high temperatures and he gets really ill," she said. "Sometimes he can't eat, play or even do his homework."

Lopez instead takes the younger children to her boyfriend's house who lives farther away, and she said his health gets a little better when they leave.

A Local Business

Billy Hickman is the vice president of operations at Hickman's Family Farms. They’ve been an Arizona business since 1943 and bought the property in Tonopah because it’s close to Interstate 10.

"It is intensive animal agriculture and was built with new technology," Hickman said. "We’ll continue listening to the neighborhood and be as good a neighbor as we can."

Earlier in October, about 30 residents of both Tonopah and Arlington, where there's an even larger egg farm than Tonopah, came to speak out at a public hearing for a dust permit the Hickmans applied for.

Locals complained about the smell, health problems and legal reasons why the permit should be denied.

Some in attendance are members of a group called Save Tonopah Oppose the Poultry Plant (STOPP) which has been vocal about getting the Hickmans out of the community.

Linda Butler is in charge of STOPP, which recently filed an Environmental Protection Agency complaint against the Hickman’s farm.

"Most of the people that have moved out to the country have done so not only because they like the night sky and the quiet and the peace but many of them have respiratory issues," Butler said. "And the poultry business industry is notorious in bringing respiratory and health issues to the area."

But is the egg farm really a health concern?

"We understand that this can really be a nuisance, however there are no known health effects to living near a chicken farm," Dr. Rebbeca Sunenshine, the medical director of disease control at the Maricopa County Department of Health, said.

Many studies have been done documenting the different chemicals put out by an intensive poultry farm, and whether there are health effects. Most conclude that there isn’t enough information to confirm that living near a chicken farm is bad for public health.

But, if you live downwind of a poultry farm, you cannot get away from the smell.

"If you're simultaneously exposed to high odor levels, high hydrogen sulfide and ammonia and endotoxin from bacteria, then we don’t know so much what the adverse health effects would be of this complex mixed exposure paradigm," said Peter Thorne, environmental health professor at the University of Iowa.

Thorne said some studies show that schools closer to concentrated animal feeding operations have a higher probability of health problems.

"Over the last 30 years, this has been studied a lot and we know that they have basically different types of respiratory problems in the acute sense," he said.

However, those respiratory problems and their causes are difficult to study. In urban areas, it's easy to study environmental health effects because of the population density. In rural areas, it's a little more difficult.

"With livestock production, the people are widely distributed and the exposures will be different from house to house, and more expensive, and more difficult to study from an epidemiological perspective and few studies have been done to do this," Thorne said.

Who Can Regulate A Smell?

Maricopa County Air Quality Director Philip McNeely said his department has heard 139 complaints from Tonopah about the Hickman's egg farm this year.

"I think what the issue is they’d like us to do more than what our authority is and there is a little bit of confusion with this facility because there are two different agencies that have authority," McNeely said.

In Maricopa County, a complaint for odor can go to either county air quality or the Arizona Department for Environmental Quality. ADEQ regulates dust, while county air quality regulates certain air pollutants that would contribute to the smell. The Hickmans' farms emit both.

But there isn’t much either agency can do in most cases, especially because the egg farms aren’t breaking any laws.

When asked, Hickman said they hope to communicate more with residents, but there's no turning back time.

Back at her home in Tonopah, Lopez and her family don’t want to accept this way of life.

"Sometimes they ask me, when I reported to the air quality, this is what they told me, 'Have you considered moving out?' What are you talking about, move out? This is my home, this is my family’s home," Lopez said.

In the U.S., 34 states regulate where a large poultry farm can operate — but Arizona doesn’t. And, state policy doesn’t consider farms nuisances unless they substantially affect public health.

So, for now, Lopez and her children will still be neighbors with the Hickmans' chickens.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hickman Family Farms is a family owned company, and Clint Hickman is a vice president with the company. Hickman is also an elected member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The board has no direct regulatory authority over businesses or air quality issues. Hickman has recused himself when farm business has come before the board of supervisors.

Updated 11/4/2015 at 4:15 p.m.

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