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Mega egg operation headed to Union County hatches opposition from neighbors

Alpes Sanfer Inc. is a Mexico-based international company. The site in Sharps Chapel could be the company's first U.S. operation.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An international chicken farm is planning to build a facility in Union County. It's an industry that commissioners and community leaders say may bring big dollars and a big investment in the county's rural economy.

However, some neighbors of the pending development are worried about the potential harm this type of industry could cause to the environment around their town.

The mega-farm is moving onto a 103-acre lot. It will have eight buildings and house up to 72,000 chickens.

According to Sanfer, these aren't normal chickens. They're Specific-pathogen-free (SPF) chickens, which are used for veterinary vaccine production and research, plus sentinels for virus isolation. 

Debbie Boeck can see the site of the future chicken operation from her front porch. Right now, the view is of a red barn and grassy field; but, soon she worries she will see concrete buildings. 

"I love coming through here and seeing the big open pasture lands. I see all the cows out. It's just so peaceful and beautiful here," Boeck said. "This facility is going to change the environment by having concrete buildings with big fences, and concertina wire on top of it. It's going to change the nature of the entire area."

Boeck isn't the only one who thinks so. She joined forces with several other neighbors in Sharps Chapel to raise concerns about the incoming chicken operation.

She is a member of the Friends of Sharps Chapel, a group that has been advocating against the facility. One of those advocates is Pamela Wilson.

"I've never been an activist, I have never rallied around some sort of environmental cause. But this is pretty basic," Wilson said.

The group met one another in August 2021 at a neighborhood crime watch meeting. That's when the Mayor of Union County, Jason Bailey, announced the new location of the chicken operation.

According to the Friends of Sharps Chapel, at the meeting, they were informed that this new industry would bring 30 jobs paying between $13 and  $17 per hour for the citizens of Union County — up to around $35,000 per year.

There's a population of about 1,500 people in Sharps Chapel. The promise of 30 jobs is why Commissioner Jeff Brantley said he is excited about the facility.

"This county needs jobs and that's a start. It's 30 jobs, but my goodness, we've never had any jobs and Sharps Chapel,"  Brantley said.

But, not everyone was feeling that excitement.

"We were told that this was coming and there's nothing we can do about it," Boeck said.

Boeck felt many questions have gone unanswered in regard to the waste-management strategy and environmental risks this type of facility could introduce.

"It's not just the waste that comes from the chicken. But, it's the airborne pollutants that are also of concern to us," Boeck said.

Pollutants that can cause foul smells and waste management are the two major concerns among activists in the community.

"They are chickens, they poop. They emit noxious gases from that poop," Wilson said. "And I want to know what they're going to do with all of that poop."

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has no jurisdiction over this operation in Sharps Chapel. Furthermore, the state did away with mandatory manure management plan requirements in 2017 for certain sites.

"As enacted...Makes permit mandatory for certain animal feeding operations that use a liquid waste management system and optional for other animal feeding operations," the law says.

It puts the trust in Sanfer to develop a safe and effective waste management plan.

"They have not shared that plan with us. And yes, I know they don't have to, it's their business. It's their private business," Wilson said. 

Sanford did agree to allow local farmers to use the poop generated from the facility for fertilizers. But once that manure is taken off the property it's a liability of the farmer, not the corporation.

"What is the plan and who will oversee it? That's not that hard, is it?" Wilson said.

There's been no confirmation that the Environmental Protection Agency will provide oversight. But, Brantley said he doesn't think any problems will come of the facility.

"In my opinion, the EPA will be regulating this thing highly. And if they don't, I'll contact the EPA myself," Brantley said.

Meanwhile, The Friends of Sharps Chapel said they've received a lot of backlash from commissioners and other community leaders for voicing their opinions about the incoming facility.

"We are called 'the chicken haters,'" Wilson said. "I don't like being called a chicken hater. I'm not a chicken hater. I'm not a farmer hater. I love farmers, I'm of a farming family. But this is not farming this is industry."

The Sanfer facility is set to break ground in May. Company leaders later dismissed some of the concerns from the community in April.

"The feces of the hens do not touch the soil at any moment," said Dr. Jose Luis Aviles, the owner of Sanfer. "We put it directly from the barns inside the house directly into containers. We are working with the University of Tennessee and they are giving us some advice on how to manage this in the proper way."

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