TONOPAH, Ariz. (CN) – Just before the turnoff to the Casa Blanca Hot Springs, there’s a small homemade sign on the side of the road depicting the outline of a chicken head inside of a red circle with a slash through it. It’s one of the few clues on the ground here that this tiny desert way station, about an hour west of Phoenix, is in turmoil.
Once on Casa Blanca’s property, a scrubby acre populated by mesquite trees and a 1970s-era silver Airstream trailer parked next to a stone “meditation circle,” the source of the chicken-head controversy comes into view.
Looking west from the fence line, one sees the construction crane that rises into the cloudless Arizona sky from the site of the new Hickman’s Desert Pride facility. The egg ranch, which broke ground in February, is expected to initially house more than 2 million hens.
“A lot of people ask about the signs up around town,” says Casa Blanca’s caretaker Samantha Phenix-Gronczewski, as she gives Courthouse News a tour of the property. “I have heard nothing but expressions of disappointment, and how terrible it’s going to be, and how they won’t want to come back.”
She’s talking about the “naturists” from all over the world that somehow find this off-track oasis, mostly through word-of-mouth and the Internet. During the high season from January through March, they travel to this raw and open desert along Interstate 10, just a few exits on from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, to soak in its springs and lounge around in the buff, looking up at night into a star-smeared sky. The waters are rumored, like many such geothermal hotspots around the world, to have secret healing properties.
This is not the high-end Southwestern tourist track. It’s far from those famous celebrity-haunted resorts in Scottsdale, Sedona and Tucson. Think rustic, then take it down a notch. They call it a “mom and pop soak and sleep,” Phenix-Gronczewski says.
There are a couple of rooms for rent in a little white cottage, and camp spots and a few places to park an RV. For those who want to soak in private, there are two outdoor bathtubs that a hose fills up with the hot-spring water. You can walk in slow circles around the stone labyrinth, meditating on the desert’s silence.
“It’s something special,” Phenix-Gronczewski explains. “Something different.”
She is part of a local group called Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant (STOPP), which last month filed an anticipatory nuisance lawsuit against Hickman’s Family Farms, a company that’s been in business in Arizona for some 70 years. Clint Hickman, a lifelong employee of the family-owned company, is currently a Supervisor of Maricopa County, a region that includes unincorporated Tonopah.
The group wants construction on the egg ranch stopped, claiming that when it ramps up production the chicken waste, dust, feathers, bugs and traffic produced by such a large facility will completely destroy the rural character of the area and befoul the hot-spring aquifer that they say makes this place special.
According to the lawsuit, which is currently making its way through Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, the facility will start out with just over 2 million laying hens but will eventually house some 12 million. The stench of the waste, dust and feathers produced by that many birds will carry on the air and make soaking in hot-spring waters just half a mile away an unpleasant experience, the complaint alleges.
Scientists from Johns Hopkins University hired by the plaintiffs warn that there is also a “high probability that Hickman’s will impact the availability of water” in Tonopah, drawing some “222 gallons per minute (for an inventory of 2 million layers) to 1,333 gallons per minute (for an inventory of 12 million layer hens) for drinking and egg wash water.”
The group also objects to the prison labor that Hickman’s says it will employ in the facility under a state program. Up to 20 percent of the workers could be “carefully screened and supervised minimum security inmates,” the company says.
“I think it’s definitely going to affect the health and welfare of the town as a whole,” Phenix-Gronczewski says. “Especially here with the hot-springs soaking. We are literally less than half a mile away, we are their closest neighbor. And with all the feather fallout, and the smell, and the traffic noise, and everything else, it’s not going to be nearly as serene or as relaxing here as it is now.”
Right next door to Casa Blanca, the larger, more commercial El Dorado Hot Springs allegedly faces a similar fate when the egg ranch opens.
The sprawling property, lush with shaggy palms and curtains of bamboo, offers rock-built soaking tubs with an average temperature of 107 degrees, and shady, private hideaways with lounge chairs and fire pits and long views of the wild desert and the jagged mountains off in the distance.
El Dorado has been open for 33 years, manager Matt Kamowski tells Courthouse News, and he’s confident that the egg facility isn’t going to change that.
“Whether it’s a week from now, or two years from now, once we prove the damage that they’re going to cause, they won’t be there,” he says. “They are not going to push us out of here.”
People come from as far away as Europe and Asia to soak in these waters, Kamowski says.
“They consider it to have a healing aspect,” he adds. “And it works. This is far better than any pill.”
In its effort against the poultry plant, STOPP has enlisted the services of Phoenix attorney Howard Shanker. He told Courthouse News that, along with the nuisance lawsuit, he’s also challenging the “agricultural exemption” under which he says the facility will be allowed to operate without much regulation.
In Arizona, as in many other states, local jurisdictions cannot regulate agriculture to any great degree. But Shanker and STOPP argue that the Hickman’s egg facility will be more akin to big industry than to farming.
“Hickman’s filed forms which are a couple of pages long to get the exemption,” Shanker says. “When you think of an agricultural exemption, you think of someone growing alfalfa or corn or cotton or something … but these agri-industries move in under the exact same exemption, and they have 12 million chickens in a confined area, producing thousands of pounds of manure everyday – I mean, this is an industrial facility.”
He says that the exemption, which frees the egg ranch from various safety and environmental obligations, should take into account the “huge difference between growing alfalfa and one of these concentrated animal feed operation.”
“They’ve got this 35,000 square foot processing plant, which is more like manufacturing, so they should have to comply with building safety and drainage codes,” Shanker adds. “And depending on what they are doing with all this manure, that may not be agricultural either.”
STOPP has also reached out to the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), a small Oregon-based nonprofit that helps communities oppose what they call “factory farms.”
“The cards are stacked against people in these kinds of situations,” says Danielle Diamond, SRAP’s executive director and legal leader, in a phone interview. “The laws have definitely been written to favor agriculture, but it’s not really agriculture.”
Diamond has seen the same thing that’s happening in Tonopah in other rural areas throughout the country: a huge operation like Hickman’s moves into an area under an exemption similar to Arizona’s, and property values and “quality of life” take a dive.
“These types of facilities have serious public health impacts, environmental impacts, economic impacts,” she says. “One of them comes in, and property values decline, people can’t sell their homes, they get trapped, they become prisoners in their homes, because they can’t sell, they can’t open their windows, they can’t go outside, their well gets polluted.”
Hickman’s, which operates two other egg facilities in the desert around Phoenix, denied all of the group’s allegations in an answer to the anticipatory nuisance lawsuit.
“Hickman’s denies that operation of the facility will have dilatory impacts on air, ground water, soils and surface water,” the company says. “Generalities about concentrated animal feed operations are inadmissible and irrelevant to operation of the facility and this case.”
The company also says that it “uses a specially designed feed mix which reduces manure production.”
Efforts to contact company spokesman Billy Hickman were unsuccessful.
No matter what happens with the current lawsuit, Shanker says that he and STOPP are not going away anytime soon.
“There’s a pre-existing residential and tourist-type industry going on there, and these guys are just coming in and ignoring that, and it’s going to destroy the whole footprint of Tonopah,” he says. “The community has made it clear that if they don’t prevail on the anticipatory nuisance claim, when this does become an actual nuisance, they will file another suit.”
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