The County Council's attempt to allow unlimited slaughter and rendering over 88,000 acres of rural Whatcom County displays a reckless attitude towards the environment and land use policy, plus a poor grasp of history.
Paris regulated slaughter in 1416. Boston started in 1692. London's cholera outbreaks in the 1840s closed animal markets and restricted slaughter. Many U.S. cities followed during the public health movement of the 1860s. Eleven cholera epidemics ravaged New Orleans between 1832 and 1869, sparking sweeping legislation. Slaughter and rendering create unavoidable nuisances. They forced us to start separating incompatible land uses. Today, it's called zoning.
Slaughterhouses are inappropriate near most other uses. They degrade property values and cause environmental harm. Neither should they be in isolated places where supervision is difficult. Most places limit slaughterhouses to industrial areas with adequate water, sewer and transportation facilities. That's what we have today. Deregulating slaughter threatens the character of our agricultural community.
Records show that Whatcom County's sole USDA-certified slaughterhouse has for years operated in violation of numerous county codes. County officials affirm that blood and waste were improperly disposed in a manure lagoon destined for land disposal. Other waste and water violations have occurred. How many for how long? How many facilities can we inspect? How far afield?
A council member sponsored this amendment for the applicant who wanted to buy the facility. They hoped to legitimize the place and assist the sale. The applicant's resume involves numerous health and licensing violations with various food service operations, including running an intentionally secret restaurant and serving alcohol illegally. He has violated securities laws in at least two states.
It gets worse. Council members and planning staff refuse to consider the full range of impacts and potential mitigations as required by law. They insist future permit reviews will suffice -- a piecemeal approach long deemed improper. They disdain evidence that these facilities can devastate property values, or foster vermin and pests that can render fruit and vegetable crops unsalable.
Friendsofwhatcom.com finally derailed this ill-advised ordinance with an online petition and some pitched citizen activism. We showed the ordinance would require more than 50 acres of factory chicken barns for every facility processing poultry. They hadn't considered poultry.
We showed that unlimited slaughterhouses anywhere would cause predictable environmental harm. Council scoffed, "Let's just try it and see what happens. We can make adjustments later." Bad idea. Council joked that rendering might smell like barbeque, though our local air quality authority cautioned, "The odors such facilities generate are, frankly, unimaginable."
When we threatened challenge under the State Environmental Policy and Growth Management Acts, council, attorneys and staff finally met behind closed doors to reluctantly originate a new draft restricting slaughterhouses on agricultural lands to three.
In the chambers, council immediately doubled the number and increased the size. A majority has demonstrated a constant determination to expand slaughter countywide. That's a slippery slope and citizens should beware.
Most everyone agrees that a properly sized, designed, permitted and operated slaughterhouse could advantageously serve both local producers and consumers. Research shows that a single facility hewing to quality standards has the best chance to maintain a premium brand and provide both the highest added value to producers and the best local meat products to consumers. In contrast, a district-wide amendment is likely to invite unwanted industry trends that directly undermine these aims.
What should be done? Slaughterhouses should be limited to industrial areas and reviewed as conditional uses. This guards against interference with nearby properties. Slaughter, like mushroom composting facilities, should remain prohibited in the agricultural zone, except for mobile facilities. Agricultural lands should be protected, not industrialized and tainted. Land for rural industrial manufacturing is already available and better suited. Council should kill this amendment.
Or consider a franchise approach, especially with a cooperative. At least then facilities could be likely to serve local producers instead of following usual industry patterns of market control. There are better ways to do this. Other communities are doing it.
Any 88,000 acre rezone deserves the highest public scrutiny and the greatest care. Citizens should insist on a competent Environmental Impact Statement and encourage council to put their best proposal on the ballot for the people to decide.
Tip Johnson is a former City Council member with over four decades of public interest advocacy on social and environmental community achievement projects.