by Anne Hedges
Residents just outside of Great Falls, Montana, believed they were living in an area zoned for agriculture. They thought that meant farms, the usual livestock, agricultural equipment on the dirt roads, and wide-open spaces. They received a rude awakening in October 2017 when they learned that a huge slaughterhouse and rendering plant was proposed in their area. They were shocked to learn that the Cascade County Commission had changed the zoning regulations earlier in the year to allow this type of industrial operation in their agriculturally zoned area. It remains unclear who made the request to the County for the radical change in its zoning rules, as there were no supporters or opponents during the public comment period for the change. However, one thing is certain; people in the area are now very rightfully concerned.
While a normal-sized slaughterhouse might be considered appropriate in an agriculturally zoned area, the proposed slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town is anything but normal. The official name of the project sounds benign – Madison Food Park, LLC. – but the proposal hardly matches the name.
First, while the information submitted to the County to obtain a special use permit was cursory at best, what was provided shows the massive scale of the project. The slaughterhouse and rendering plant will handle cattle, pigs, and chickens. It will produce 102,995 pounds of solid waste per day (that’s 51 tons per day) that will be treated in enormous on-site lagoons adjacent to creeks that flow into the Missouri River. It will require 3.5 million gallons of ground water each day (the equivalent of 5 Olympic sized swimming pools a day) that will be pumped from an underground aquifer that serves many other users. It is proposed to have about 400 trucks per day coming in and out of the plant Monday through Friday, as well as the thousands of employees who will be coming and going to the property. A rail spur is also proposed that may require condemnation of private property. And the company says it is also planning a cheese factory, milk processing plant, distillery, and more for the property.
Equally troubling is the fact that the proposal is shrouded in secrecy. The County made a dramatic change in its zoning rules to accommodate this industrial operation. This type of facility had previously not been allowed in an agriculturally zoned area. The community wasn’t warned that a multi-species slaughterhouse, rendering plant, and secondary production facility was waiting in the wings and dependent on the changes to the agricultural zoning laws. The County staff simply copied the new zoning language directly from an unsigned note it received that contained no address, name, or other identifying information. The staff then pushed the language change through the process. There were no proponents at any of the public hearings yet the County made changes that allowed an industrial operation to avoid having to go through a more rigorous zoning change process.
It remains unclear who is proposing the facility and who is providing financial backing. The application to the County said that Friesen Foods, LLC purchased the land and is the developer. Friesen is a large privately held Canadian corporation. The property for the facility is actually titled to Madison Food Park, LLC, a new Montana corporation. This raises questions about whether the livestock and grain that will be processed at the facility would even be locally sourced.
There are simply too many questions, too great an impact, and nowhere near enough answers to allow a project of this scale to proceed. The applicant told the County it will supplement the information in the application, so the public hearing on the proposal has not yet been held. Until the applicant provides more details on sewage, water quantity and quality, odor control, traffic, the rail spur, and much, much more, this proposal itself should be ”sent to the slaughter house.”