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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Citizens' efforts scramble Ohio's mega egg farm

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Eggs delivered from the hens by conveyor belts are lined up to be cleaned and probed for defects at the Buckeye Egg Farm. Eggs delivered from the hens by conveyor belts are lined up to be cleaned and probed for defects at the Buckeye Egg Farm.
NEIL VAN DER PLAS / BLADE Enlarge

MARSEILLES, Ohio - Bob and Rosella Bear have been feuding with their neighbors for seven years.

They say their next-door nemeses are ruining their way of life. They stink, the Bears contend, and their mess is ruining the water supply.

Many people fight with their neighbors. But the Bears' problem is different. They live next to millions of chickens.

Buckeye Egg Farm has raised chickens, part of a conglomerate that has nearly 15 million birds in three counties, in Marseilles since 1996. And the Bears have kept a watchful eye on the farm since it opened.

“I don't know if we had any impact, but I'd like to think we've helped a little,” Mrs. Bear said. “We're not celebrating yet.”

They are part of a contingent of residents in Wyandot, Hardin, and Licking counties who have been complaining about odor and pollution for years. The constant monitoring might have paid off; earlier this month the state revoked Buckeye's permits and ordered it to start closing barns, beginning with Marseilles.

The egg farm has appealed and asked for an appeals commission for a stay that would allow the company to keep operating.

Those who have worked with the farm opponents say the residents' hard work should be credited with opening the state's eyes to the problems created by the egg giant.

“I think it's largely because of their persistence. With a lot of obstacles in their way they kept the state's feet to the fire,” said Susan Studer King of the Ohio Environmental Council.

Deborah Abbott, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the decision was based on the company's poor compliance history with the law. She said it dated back to an order from August, 2002, when the agriculture department first took over the regulation of large-scale farms.

The opponents largely dealt with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which regulated large-scale farms until last August.

“Neighbors who complained about problems are obviously important. . . . At that time we didn't have a volume of citizen complaints,” she said.

Opponents of Buckeye Egg Farm held large public hearings decrying problems with flies and manure leaking into local waterways. They put up signs criticizing the farm and wrote letters to the editors of every paper in the area.

“They took an issue nobody was paying attention to and got it on the front page,” said Rick Sahli, an attorney who represents the Buckeye Egg opponents.

It started in Croton, after the farm began operating in 1982. At first, opponents only told the Environmental Protection Agency they did not like the farm, especially in their backyard.

Then they got smarter, Ms. Studer King said.

The opponents, including the Bears, scoured every public record they could find concerning the egg farm, especially environmental reports. They waited for hours at public agencies to see the documents.

Mr. Bear photographed construction and manure spreading at the Marseilles site.

“When we see something strange, he grabs the video camera and starts filming,” his wife said.

The northwest Ohio activists said they learned how to fight Buckeye Egg from residents who live near the farm in Croton and had been fighting its existence since the 1980s.

Mr. Sahli, their attorney, said he thinks the citizens' groups were instrumental in prompting the EPA to cite the farm for environmental violations because they photographed the incidents and reported them to the state.

The residents were threatened with libel suits and criticized as being overzealous environmentalists and animal-rights activists. Mr. Sahli said the opponents, largely conservative Republicans, are not either one.

“They are rural folks who want their quality of life back,” Ms. Studer King said.

The Bears have nine albums of newspaper clippings, drawers of videos, a file cabinet full of important documents, and boxes of public records they gleaned from the agriculture department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Opponents of Buckeye Egg Farm have said for years that the company could not control the flies that flocked to the chicken manure. Buckeye Egg released beetles into the manure to eat the fly larvae, but then the neighbors said the beetles invaded their homes. They filed lawsuits, which were settled.

Mrs. Bear said she does not know what she and her husband will do if the farm disappears or is sold. She said she has gotten e-mails and phone calls from other groups opposing large scale farms asking for advice and help.

“It would be nice to have a life again,” she said.



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