With the smell of manure and dead chickens wafting onto his land, Charles Blackmon went to court, seeking limits on poultry farms that are expanding in his community.
S.C. regulators have allowed 50 chicken houses to open near his property and 30 more may open, the Laurens County resident says.
But if the Legislature approves a poultry industry-backed bill, Blackmon and others will find it harder to keep chicken farms away from their neighborhoods. It would be easier to locate those farms, often accused of polluting creeks and smelling up the countryside, across the state.
Pushed by state Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, as a way to help boost the farm economy by limiting legal challenges, the bill would ease setback requirements that separate farms from other people’s land. The bill also would make it harder to challenge state permits for poultry farms.
Blackmon, whose son lives near a cluster of chicken farms, said his neighbors are suffering from the proliferation of poultry farms in Laurens.
“You have these flies, they just cover your vehicle,” Blackmon said. “I have a neighbor who can no longer have a cookout. He never knows when the odor is going to be overwhelming.”
The poultry-farm bill has passed the S.C. House and could pass the Senate as early as Thursday. Senators voted 41-4 Tuesday to put the bill on the fast track for approval. They spent part of Wednesday debating the bill.
Poultry is big business in South Carolina. Chicken and turkey farming are among the largest players in the agricultural economy.
Statewide, S.C. poultry farmers grow more than 200 million chickens for market each year, ranking the state among the country’s top 15 producers.
The greatest concentrations of poultry farms are in two areas: near the border of Lexington, Aiken and Saluda counties and in Oconee County. Lexington produces about 30 million chickens a year, federal statistics show.
The influential S.C. Farm Bureau supports loosening poultry-farm restrictions, arguing that doing so would help farmers provide affordable meat to a hungry population. Verdin said Wednesday that South Carolina’s rules are stricter than other states, limiting the poultry industry’s ability to expand here.
“This is common-sense legislation that helps South Carolina farmers be competitive with neighboring states by adding certainty to the permitting process,” the Farm Bureau said in an email Wednesday. “This bill is also good for economic growth and will help agriculture continue to be a driving force for rural communities.”
S.C. legislators are well acquainted with big agriculture, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for industry-friendly laws. In 2006, for instance, the farm lobby persuaded the Legislature to block local governments from regulating chicken farms.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said the Senate is making a mistake at the public’s expense.
“What we’ve done is kowtow to the poultry industry and make this issue a priority over many more important issues,” Kimpson said. “This business of putting powerful corporate interests over the welfare of our citizens and the protections they enjoy is pervasive at the State House.”
The bill takes away DHEC’s ability to require greater distances between chicken farms and other people’s land. Under existing law, the distance between a chicken barn and a nearby resident’s home must be 1,000 feet, but it can be increased if DHEC sees a need.
The existing law also allows residents within 2 miles of a proposed poultry farm to object to its permitting by DHEC. Under the industry-backed bill, only residents within a mile could challenge a permit. That would prevent others — affected by downstream water pollution, for example — from challenging a permit.
Blackmon and others say they’re all for chicken farms if the farms can be operated without disrupting communities.
But some chicken farms have tens of thousands of birds. These operations, controlled by farm corporations, produce tons of manure that must be disposed of, as well as the chickens that die.
“We are agricultural people ourselves, but we do ask for elbow room to help maintain the harmony that our rural communities have experienced in the past,” Blackmon said in an email Wednesday to lawmakers. The bill, H.3929, “will only serve to provide greater conflict.”