Local non-profit group trying to halt construction of new hog plant in Sioux Falls

Published: Apr. 6, 2022 at 10:16 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Smell it coming?

That’s the phrase a new non-profit group is using to convey its effort to halt the construction of a new $600 million pork processing plant in northeast Sioux Falls.

Locally-owned Wholestone Farms — whose board chairman insists the facility’s look and odor will not be a hazard to the area’s quality of life — plans to employ 2,000 workers and harvest 6,000,000 hogs per year on about half of the 172 acres of land the company bought near I-229 and Benson Road.

That’s about as many pigs that are slaughtered north of downtown at Smithfield Foods, whose odor is well-known to residents and visitors of the city.

Incorporated in February, Citizens for a Sustainable Sioux Falls is determined to prevent the plant, and a similar smell, from coming to an area close to Great Bear Ski Valley and the new South Dakota Veterans Cemetery. The land is also within about a quarter-mile of residential homes.

“The number one issue in my conversations with residents and business leaders in the community is the smell, but it’s not the only issue,” said Robert Peterson, CSSF’s executive director. “We know that Sioux Falls residents want city leaders to bring in high-scale, high-wage jobs, and, simply put, a new heavy industrial slaughterhouse, a massive project like the Wholestone project, does not advance that aim.”

The group recently released a survey it commissioned of 300 Sioux Falls residents, and 78 percent agreed any new industrial meat processing facility should be required to be located outside of city limits. The same amount thought the project would have a negative impact on odors, and just under 70 percent thought the same for traffic, congestion, water quality, and housing availability.

Three-fourths of them agreed city leaders should hit the brakes on the project.

“We don’t believe any serious attempt to study the impacts of odor contamination, noise contamination, traffic congestion, water contamination has been done,” Peterson said. “What we’re asking the city council to do is place a moratorium on this project until a more serious study can be done.”

The city council set a precedent in 2015 by ordering a six-month moratorium on billboards in Sioux Falls, “and I would say a massive industrial complex like this is far more concerning than city limits on billboards,” Peterson said.

But City Planning and Development Director told Dakota News Now on Wednesday there is not much more the city can do about the process of the plant’s construction.

Before the land was purchased by Wholestone, Eckhoff’s department approved the zoning of the proposed sight of the plant because it fit into the “heavy industry” category of the city’s zoning policy. This was because the land was near the city’s industrial park, including its water treatment facility.

Peterson said this “heavy industry” zoning is inconsistent with the “light industry” category that was given when the “Shape Sioux Falls 2040″ plan, which was adopted by the city in 2016, two years before construction started for the nearby Gage Brothers Concrete Products facility.

“I’m not familiar with how and when that was changed,” Eckhoff said. “I know the heavy industrial zoning came when Gage Brothers went up, because they needed the (heavy industry) classification, so that’s a fairly close neighbor to that, so, I think when the owner of the (Wholestone) land re-zoned for that, he re-zoned the entire parcel that way.”

Eckhoff is encouraged that the company is discharging its own wastewater.

But the permitting process is now in the hands of the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which will be working with Wholestone’s to make sure it meets air and water safety standards.

“In some respects, people would like the city to control everything,” Eckhoff said. “And we’d only have nice, beautiful things here and things there. Certainly, in my yard, I want things the way I want them.

“And then, there’s the private sector being able to sell land and control what they have within the rules and guidelines and zoning of the City of Sioux Falls and State of South Dakota. So, where do you cross that line and how much do you regulate? Because it’s something people don’t like. I get that, and I understand people’s concerns, but that’s a line we always have to balance, right?”

Eckhoff said the city tries to be fair and judicious about how it looks at zoning, and the placements of facilities like Wholestone, but repeated several times: This is one case where the zoning was already in place “way before the project came along.”

“We looked at it and we looked at the things we could do, what regulations did we have over them,” Eckhoff said. “What things could we do to try to ensure that it was a good project for the City of Sioux Falls? And we found that the boxes had been checked by the zoning prior to that.”

Eckhoff understands the fears that Wholestone will be another Smithfield plant, originally built in 1910 and owned by John Morrell and Company until Smithfield’s purchase in 1995.

But he’s encouraged by public remarks made by Wholestone chairman of the board Dr. Luke Minion.

“He talks about how it’s a new plant, a safe plant,” Eckhoff said. “It’s on one level. It’s not a multi-level that we have with Smithfield, and the odor and water safeguards put in place are different from what we’ve seen.”

In a Wednesday interview with Dakota News Now, Minion said Wholestone will not be “absolutely an eye sore,” as Peterson said residents expect it to be, nor will it emit the “foul odors” the CSSF describes.

“We have spent five years and about 50 million dollars to make sure new plant’s technology on odor reduction will match or exceed the (nearby) City of Sioux Falls treatment plant.

“I live in Sioux Falls, and trust me, we are well aware of the concerns people have. We’ve been open about sharing our designs. We’ve built the best odor mitigation technology available.”

The Citizens for a Sustainable Sioux Falls director isn’t convinced that will be satisfactory.

“Mitigation isn’t elimination,” Peterson said. “Odor is subjective. Things may smell stronger to one person than they do to another person. So how do we measure that?

“I appreciate the efforts being made toward it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the wrong location.”

Peterson said there’s “plenty of land in South Dakota” to build a plant, so why in the Sioux Falls city limits?

Minion said for an undertaking that will eventually employ 2,000, the plant needed to be near a large population, and echoed Eckhoff’s logic of placing it in an industrial area.

And when it comes to the other major concerns the CSSF survey addressed:

* Water contamination: Eckhoff is encouraged that Wholestone will discharge its own wastewater, and Minion said the company has been coordinating with the state since 2017 to make sure wastewater will be “acceptable and compliant.”

“Wastewater is all controlled by the state,” Eckhoff said. “They’ll have to monitor and send samples and that type of thing.”

* Traffic and congestion: Eckhoff said “we’re going to be improving that interchange anyway, and it’ll be industrial traffic, primarily with quick access onto I-229, and, so, certainly, (traffic) won’t be going through any residential neighborhoods. There will be traffic, but it will be on Benson Road and I-229, primarily.”

* Labor and housing: In a city with over 202,000 people — which just increased its population by 7,000 in 2021 — and with giant projects underway like an Amazon facility, Peterson and 62 percent of the 300 residents in the CSSF survey think the Wholestone plant would have a negative impact on housing availability.

But the plant will not be built, and therefore labor won’t be needed, until 2026 at the earliest, Minion said. The plant plans to start at 1,000 employees and work its way up to 2,000 by 2028.

“That’s six years from now,” Minion emphasized. “It’s not this horrible, scary thing.”

Said Eckhoff: “I don’t care if its Wholestone Foods or Amazon or some business trying to employ 30 people. Workforce is a major issue in our city, and all across the country and across the state... Affordable housing is a complicated, big issue. I’m not denying that. The amount of jobs, I think that’s been our concern as a city. How do we absorb the growth, and not just from this project but from the overall, tremendous growth overall?... It’s a challenge.”

He said the city has “programs we have put together. Some taxing. We’re financing some things. We’re trying to find ways to incentivize. We’re looking for some opportunities for recycling houses.” He mentioned how the rate of growth, inflation, and availability of labor and supplies “are all headwinds against us right now.”

Even though Sioux Falls permitted a record number of single-family and multi-family houses each of the last two years, “they’ve got to get built. They’ve got to get supplies. They’ve got to get materials at the cost that they had hoped they could get them at.

“It’s not like people are growing into areas we weren’t planning on them growing into. They’re just doing it a lot faster than we thought they would be.”

* Economic impact and quality of life: Minion said he can’t stress enough that Wholestone foods is owned by 220 swine farmers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Eckhoff calls the upcoming plant a “value-added ag project.”

“Ag is still part of our industry,” Eckhoff said. “Ag does well in these surrounding communities, and the farmers and producers spend money in Sioux Falls. They contribute to our health care, our retail, our services, and our overall economy...

“Other stuff aside, and I’m not discounting that, but from a purely economic development standpoint, a locally-owned value-added ag is a big needle mover for the dollars.”

Peterson said CSSF is not against building the plant, nor is it anti-agriculture. But the plant should go somewhere else, and there are other ways to keep the city’s economy booming.

“The way we look at it is: Do we want Sioux Falls to be a city of the past and continue to rely on old industry,” Peterson said, “or do we want to continue forward in attacking new industry, attract in young professionals, to attract in families? Does a new mega-slaughterhouse within the city limits make Sioux Falls a more attractive location to live, work, raise a family? Does it improve the quality of life of the residents? In our view, no.”

Construction is set to begin around New Year’s 2023. Peterson said “you’ll be hearing more” from the CSSF.

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