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Tonganoxie should be worried about new Tyson plant

Protesters line the sidewalks in downtown Tonganoxie as Tyson Foods Inc., announces plans Tuesday to build a $320 million chicken-processing plant near the town.
Protesters line the sidewalks in downtown Tonganoxie as Tyson Foods Inc., announces plans Tuesday to build a $320 million chicken-processing plant near the town. Associated Press

Many residents in Tonganoxie — and tens of thousands of people across the region — are deeply worried about newly announced plans to build a massive food processing plant in northeast Kansas.

They’re right to be concerned.

The project was developed secretly. The builder, Tyson Foods Inc., has a checkered environmental record.

Kansas should slow this process down until critical issues are addressed. If they aren’t, the plan should be scrapped.

Tyson officials revealed the $320 million proposal Tuesday, joined by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and local politicians. “This is a great project,” Brownback said.

But hundreds of residents crowded into meetings this week to bitterly denounce the plan.

The factory will create about 1,600 jobs. That sounds like good news on its face, but what does that mean for local schools? Truck traffic? Water and sewer service? Residents’ safety?

And what damage might the plant do to the air and water?

Tyson’s record in this realm is unsettling.

In April 2013, Tyson agreed to pay the federal government $3.95 million for violations of the Clean Air Act in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa — the four states that comprise Region 7 of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The violations involved eight different leaks of anhydrous ammonia, a poisonous gas. In 2006, a Tyson worker was killed as a result of one such leak in South Hutchinson. A similar leak in a Tyson plant in Omaha forced the evacuation of 475 employees.

There’s more. In 2003, Tyson pleaded guilty in federal court to 20 felony violations of the Clean Water Act. The company admitted it illegally disposed of wastewater at its Sedalia, Mo., plant over several years.

The improper disposal continued “in spite of the company’s assurances that the discharges would stop and even after numerous warnings, administrative orders, two state court injunctions, and the execution of a federal search warrant at the Sedalia facility,” the Department of Justice said.

Tyson paid a $7.5 million fine in that case. Ancient history? No. “The company has a staggering water pollution footprint,” the Environment America Research and Policy Center concluded just last year.

In a statement Thursday, a Tyson spokesman said the company is not perfect.

“We acknowledge that,” wrote Worth Sparkman of Tyson. “But we continue to improve in all areas of our operations, especially in environmental matters.”

Kansans might feel better if they thought the government would protect their health once the plant opens. Alas, Brownback’s lust for jobs appears to exceed any real concern for a regulatory safety net.

And the EPA? This week, Cathy Stepp was appointed acting administrator for the Region & office. Stepp’s pro-business, pro-polluter record is clear— and a serious cause for concern.

Tyson, in fact, may have little to fear from Stepp’s EPA once the plant is up and operating. That’s precisely why her appointment is so troubling.

This isn’t just about Tonganoxie. Increased chicken farming in northeast Kansas could mean more fecal and fertilizer runoff into the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, where millions of residents get their water.

Kansans worried about the Tyson plant are right to demand answers before the plant proceeds. Don’t build this factory unless everyone is sure it’s safe.