The Williams family has considerable influence in the area according to several residents, and Williams is a member of a committee generally tasked with evaluating construction permits according to local zoning laws before they are approved (or denied) by the county planner. He did not respond to an emailed question asking whether he recused himself from any discussions that occurred related to these projects.
In February 2020, the county planner approved a permit for the 19-house chicken facility in Old Fields, but County Commissioner Harold Michael didn’t learn about it until May, when he read a story about the construction in the local paper. “Here I am, the president of the County Commission, and I had no clue that there was even an application submitted or approved,” said Michael, whose term on the Commission has since ended. “Frankly, I was beyond agitated.”
Michael found out about the permit for the second site shortly after, once it was too late for him to do anything about either one. Meanwhile, in February, residents of the subdivision overlooking the first site in Old Fields watched as the first trucks rolled up to begin construction.
Steve Pendleton, whose home is about a half a mile from the site, launched the Concerned Citizens of Hardy County—which now has 200 members on Facebook—and reached out to SRAP. Since then, Pendleton and his group of local residents have been communicating and organizing on social media, where many have expressed being blindsided by the development. They began attending Hardy County Commission meetings and enlisted outside experts to help articulate their objections.
Pendleton moved to Moorefield in 2006 to retire in a place known for its natural beauty, and he is worried about how the operation will affect the value of his and his neighbors’ homes. He’s also concerned about odors and bright lights that dim the starry sky. But “health is the utmost concern,” he said.
Large chicken CAFOs accumulate large amounts waste. It releases ammonia and particulate matter, air pollutants that are circulated out of the barns using large fans. Both are associated with adverse health outcomes, but many factors impact whether the contaminants reach and affect residents. Some studies have shown higher risks of certain respiratory issues in areas where poultry CAFOs are concentrated. The waste can also contaminate waterways and groundwater during handling, leading to pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter in drinking water.
In January, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future sent Lee Lehman, the current president of the Hardy County Planning Commission, a letter outlining some of those risks. “We believe that expanding poultry operations in Hardy County will create similar hazards as those observed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, marked by an increase of contaminants and risks to soil, air, ground, and surface water quality and the health of Hardy County residents,” they wrote.
Walls, the riverkeeper, is concerned about water pollution, since any manure that gets into runoff from the two poultry complexes will likely end up in Anderson Run, a stream that is already listed as “impaired” due to fecal coliform bacteria (which comes from animal and human waste) by the WVDEP. Last October, Walls sent the agency a letter, noting that the sites do not have NPDES permits to discharge waste. (Williams did get stormwater discharge permits that apply to the construction of the CAFOs.)
“The scary part is that you have this 19-house operation without an NPDES permit. There’s no nutrient management plan that we’re aware of . . . and we’re worried that that’s going to set a precedent,” Walls said. “If Pilgrim’s Pride wants to develop more of these mega CAFOs and they know that they don’t have to have NDPES permits throughout the state, they could just go gangbusters.”
A representative from WVDEP told Civil Eats he would look into questions about permits for these sites and CAFOs throughout the state, but did not respond to subsequent emails.
“When I first heard about this, I thought there’s no way the state DEP or the EPA would approve such a concentration of houses with that many birds,” said Michael. Now, given the lack of environmental regulation, residents are looking to local zoning policy to halt the spread of the largest livestock operations.