For many, the idea of a $4.99 rotisserie chicken is appealing. You get a lot of meat for a relatively low price, and for most Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the need to put dinner on the table doesn’t compete with the long-term environmental and public health problems of poultry production. But a new poultry processing plant managed and facilitated by Costco may change the calculus for residents of Fremont, Nebraska.

In the fall of 2019, Costco began operation of its poultry plant in coordination with Lincoln Premium Poultry (LPP), a company created for and by the Costco corporation to help streamline the production of birds in Fremont, said Jessica Kolterman, a representative from LPP. The eastern part of Nebraska will now be responsible for 43% of the country’s rotisserie chickens—that’s 2 million birds a week, and just about 100 million a year. That’s a lot of chicken, and a lot of waste produced by those chickens.

According to the Pew Environment Group, in one year, “Maryland and Delaware generate roughly 42 million cubic feet of chicken waste—enough to fill the dome of the U.S. Capitol about 50 times, or almost once a week.” In Alabama, researchers found that every pound of poultry sold at market produced half a pound of poultry waste. That much waste leaves farmers in a tricky situation, left to ship, dump, or retain the manure. A certain amount of manure is needed for healthy soil, but too much poses environmental and public health issues because if soil can’t absorb nutrients, the manure and pathogens run off or are leached into groundwater.

When local organizers and community members first learned that Costco was negotiating with the Fremont City Council for the rights and permits to establish the processing plant, they reached out to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which files briefs on behalf of communities facing public health issues such as this one. A letter written by the center addressed to the Fremont City Council read, “There are serious human health and environmental concerns associated with large poultry processing plants, including occupational risks, exposure to air pollution and pathogens, and the environmental impacts of excessive use and water discharge.”

“We had several concerns about the welfare of the people of Nebraska and Fremont,” said Randy Ruppert, a farmer and organizer with Nebraska Communities United. Ruppert has worked to educate the local community about the financial impact factory farms have on small farmers, as well as sounding the alarm on the environmental degradation resulting from poultry plants like Costco’s.

The letter also claims that exposure to these chemicals can lead to severe health issues for those working in the plant and members of the community, “including cancer, birth defects, thyroid problems, methemoglobinemia, neurological impairments, and liver damage.”

During city council meetings before the opening of the plant, neighbors and community members stated their concerns about the plant’s potential to affect water and air quality, as well as the potential decline in property values for homes in the vicinity of the plant itself and the numerous concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) that would be built in neighboring Iowa to provide the plant with raw birds. Despite receiving hundreds of public comments in protest, Dodge County approved Costco’s proposal.

The issue of water is of particular concern. The Groundwater Association says that 38% of Americans rely on groundwater for drinking water, as do most Nebraskans, and it’s often the first source of water to be polluted by manure from CAFOs or chemical agents used on processing sites. There is ample evidence of the linkages between factory farms, specifically the CAFOs that produce billions of chicken per year in the United States, and groundwater contamination. Farmers in states like Arkansas and Oklahoma dispose of poultry waste by using manure to fertilize soil or by burying it in the ground in ditches that are lined with plastic, a vulnerable and unsustainable method of disposal. Manure runoff from surface-level soil and through leaks in the underground storage containers pollutes groundwater, which feeds into surface water tributaries. It’s this surface water contamination that is the source of nitrate poisoning responsible for birth defects, miscarriages, and other health issues.

“Our litter is composted down and used as fertilizer on the farmer’s fields,” Kolterman explained of LPP’s operations. “Their applications are controlled and done in a prescriptive manner, meeting or exceeding all requirements of the state’s environmental control entity.”

But local residents aren’t reassured. “We’ve already got water problems in Eastern Nebraska,” Ruppert said. “In our fall citizens science findings, we had over 49% of the private wells that tested anywhere from ten to twenty parts per million [of] nitrogen.” The EPA maximum contaminant level is 10 parts per million.

There’s also the risk of air pollution. Broiler operations, like the one in Fremont that will prepare and cook chickens from start to finish, also contribute to air pollution, triggering bronchitis and other allergic reactions.

In addition, long-term exposure to particulate matter air pollution from substances like ammonia—given off from the massive amounts of chicken manure—threatens respiratory function and can cause cancer. Troublingly, an exemption in the Clean Air Act also allows factory farms not to report their environmental output, so the nitrous oxide and ammonium-based fertilizers that contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions face relatively lax standards.  

Costco’s system of vertical integration and contract farming allows the company to control the quality of the poultry product—they provide the grain and the eggs—without having to be on the hook for the waste produced by farming practices, says Robert Martin, the senior policy advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Martin says that what’s troubling about this is that farmers have little control over their own practices, and instead have to produce poultry at the rate the processing plant makes them into rotisserie chickens.

“It’s a scary situation for producers that do contract with the company,” says Ashlen Busick, a regional representative with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. Busick says that because farmers don’t “own the product” the scheme of vertical integration ensures that the profits won’t stay in the local community, but the environmental costs will. “[Farmers] don’t own the birds, they own the manure,” said Busick.

While Fremont is an almost entirely white community, those facing the immediate harms of poultry production are more commonly communities of color, many of which are economically dependent on large-scale farming, Martin noted. Along what’s called the “Broiler Crescent.” Martin says this is anywhere from Arkansas and Oklahoma, where birds are raised, to Maryland, where they’re processed. Clusters of affected communities suffer the harms of water and air pollution, including asthma and cancer. Martin proposes that this is why “you see Costco looking to locate new production outside that crescent,” in an effort to work with communities that may not personally know the harms of poultry production. Indeed, many in affected communities, which deal directly with increased rates of asthma, cancer, and water pollution, have started to organize against Big Chicken and Big Agriculture. 

Kolterman says that Fremont was chosen after a nationwide search was conducted for the “availability of corn and soybeans, availability of water, availability of farmers, and willingness to grow chickens and availability of workforce.”

Busick echoes Martin’s statement in that Eastern Nebraska communities may not have been well-versed with the complexities of poultry production, making them an attractive site to Costco and LPP.

These new Costco chickens are raised in Iowa, where there are already 10,000 animal feeding operations and CAFOs, and later shipped into Nebraska. Excess manure from Iowa may then be shipped to surrounding states, as is the custom in Mississippi and Arkansas. If we want to see how things will turn out in Fremont, we can look at neighboring Iowa, whose waterways have been decimated by manure output from factory farms. The 2019 Iowa ImpaIred Water Report listed 622 waterways that did not meet federal safety requirements outlined in the Clean Water Act, most often for algal blooms and E. coli contamination. “That damage to the environment is coming here,” said Ruppert, citing the likelihood that water systems in Nebraska will soon meet the same fate as Iowa’s. Decades ago, Ruppert said, Iowa’s water systems were some of the best in the nation. Now, they’re some of the most contaminated.

Community organizers in Fremont are climbing an uphill battle, with the plant already up and running and producing meat for market. Even before the plant started production in late 2019, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts stated in March that he hoped Costco would choose to locate a second poultry processing plant in the state. Given that the state’s governor believes the plant to be beneficial for local farmers and consumers and that environmentalists are “extremists,” activists are up against deeply entrenched partnerships between government and business.

While Kolterman says that there are currently no discussions for a new plant, local organizers are proactively working to prevent one should a plan arise.

Nebraska Communities United is working with local farmers to change zoning laws, which would establish CAFO location limitations, Ruppert says. If the proposed local legislation is adopted, setbacks would help to protect water systems and ensure that companies are held accountable for maintaining the buffers between CAFOs and buildings, homes, roads, and waterways.

The impact is on the environment, public health, and community is multifold, says Busick. “Having encountered factory farms for the duration of my life, I have personally experienced how this battle can tear communities apart, that’s one of the most heartbreaking issues. It pits neighbor against neighbor. These corporations typically choose where jobs are desperately needed. Some people see jobs, they see economic development, but the truth is it externalizes the costs onto the surrounding community.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.