More questions than answers in Delta chicken farm study
In deciding last week to reaffirm their approval of two 15,000 cage-free egg-laying operations — one already operating, and another planned — Delta County commissioners leaned heavily on an air quality study undertaken to determine if their operation was safe for a residential neighborhood.
That study, however, has come under scrutiny by opponents of the egg-laying operations, especially as it’s become a lynchpin of sorts for the county’s argument that there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the chicken facility operating in close proximity to homes on Powell Mesa.
The study, drawn from an air sampling taken over a couple of hours on Aug. 16, was completed by Chris Lakin, an industrial hygienist with Plateau, Inc. of Montrose.
The county’s director of environmental health, Ken Nordstrom, commissioned the study but called it “just a snapshot” of the air quality in and around the facility. Lakin measured the amounts of bacteria, mold, fungus and ammonia immediately in and around the egg-laying facility operated by Edwin Hostetler.
“The conclusions were basically that this is typical of a confined animal feeding operation. So we did not find anything atypical of an agricultural operation,” Nordstrom said. Further, Lakin’s study concludes that the fungus measurements did not appear “unusual.”
“The data from this testing does show that the facility is a generator of a variety of bio-aerosols, organic and non-organic dust, and small amounts of ammonia gas. However, there is not sufficient information at this time to suggest that these conditions are contextually abnormal, nor that they are sufficient to induce health problems,” Lakin concludes.
Opponents of the farms are picking the study apart, though.
“We happen to believe that the air quality monitoring sample study that they did is a joke,” said Travis Jardon, who is an organizer of the opposition to the farms.
One fact Jardon highlights — and which is confirmed in the study — is that the sampling was done while the facility was operating in “general ventilation mode,” not when the farm’s high-powered tunnel ventilation system was in use.
“They diluted the sample. It was nothing like what you would see blowing out of there when the curtains are down and the tunnel ventilation system is ripping full-steam,” Jardon said.
The bacteria counts found in the study are another area of contention.
Though the study admits that viable bacteria counts were “very high,” the samples they were able to identify “would not be unexpected … with a large group of confined animals.”
But an abundance of bacteria in the samples — Jardon called them “literally overgrown” — made it particularly difficult to identify “lactose fermenting Gram negative rod,” a bacteria type related to a specific genus of bacteria connected to plague and intestinal disease in humans.
Interpreting the study’s results, Nordstrom said, “The bacteria and molds found were pretty typical of what you would find in dander of chickens and decomposition of chicken manure.”
An analyst contacted by Plateau, Inc., however, expressed “concern regarding Lactose Fermenting Gram negative rod” found in the samples.
Considering the “snapshot” nature of the study, the difficulty in identifying some of the bacteria samples and the data being collected in general ventilation mode, the study itself makes clear that the results aren’t definitive.
“The testing results at this phase of operation under the observed environmental conditions may be very different from that at another time or under different operational conditions,” the study report states.
It continues: “In general, it can be stated that the facility generates a considerable plume of particulates and biological components. Potentially, some of these components may be hazardous to certain persons.”
And also: “At this time the downwind consequences are unknown as are the consequences of exposure. Further evaluation of human health impacts of this facility should be conducted in concert with a medical specialist.”
Jardon said he is considering pursuing additional legal action against Delta County but hasn’t made a formal decision yet.