Chicken facility manure handling put streams at risk, state regulators say

By: - June 24, 2022 2:35 pm

Opal Foods was improperly storing a large amount of liquid manure at its site near Iowa Falls. The liquid was about six feet deep. (Photo by Daniel Watterson/Iowa DNR)

A large Iowa Falls egg-laying chicken operation improperly stored hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid manure that had the potential to leak into a nearby creek that feeds the Iowa River, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The Opal Foods facility is located about one mile north of town and has a capacity of about 510,000 chickens. It has long had difficulties disposing of the birds’ litter because it gets saturated by their drinking water system, DNR documents show. That makes it harder to spread it as dry manure on fields.

In September 2021, a facility worker inquired about adding water to the litter to turn it into a liquid manure. It could then be injected into the fields. Someone at the DNR responded with a telephone message that said Opal would be required to submit a manure management plan to do that, but the DNR did not receive one. The company also did not obtain a required construction permit, the DNR documents said.

Two months later, during an inspection of the facility, a DNR officer noted doors of its massive manure storage building  had been closed and sealed with a berm and that the building was full of liquid manure. It’s unclear when the work was done.

The state has strict standards that govern liquid manure storage to prevent leaks and spills, and the building did not meet them, said Daniel Watterson, an environmental specialist for the DNR who discovered the problem.

“If they would have had a catastrophic failure there, they would have had a pretty big mess in a hurry,” he said.

Watterson estimated the amount of liquid manure might have approached one million gallons.

The facility is near a stream that flows into Elk Run creek and the Iowa River, which is about three miles downstream.

Opal decided to revert back to storing dry manure and agreed to pay a $6,000 fine for the infraction, according to a recent DNR administrative order.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.