Slaughterhouse would hurt Sioux Falls business growth, ordinance leaders say

Reps from the group trying to prevent Wholestone Farms spoke at city rotary meeting Monday
Published: Oct. 24, 2022 at 9:00 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - You have probably seen the “Stop the Stink” TV commercials, and you may even know about the lawsuit filed against the city of Sioux Falls.

In two weeks, voters in the city will decide on the “slaughterhouse ordinance” that would ban future slaughterhouses within city limits. This stems from a proposed 170-acre pork processing plant in at I-229 and Benson Road Sioux falls known as “Wholestone Farms.”

For the second time in three weeks, the ballot measure was the talk among influential city business leaders at the downtown Rotary club meeting today.

Two weeks ago at Rotary, leaders of the ordinance’s opposition said denying the Wholestone plant would set a bad precedent that would drive away potential new businesses to the city and state, something Gov. Kristi Noem has said, as well.

Today, Brendan Johnson, the legal counsel for Smart Growth Sioux Falls — the group that garnered 10,000 petitions to enable the measure to be on the ballot — suggested the opposite would be the case.

”This isn’t a situation where all of a sudden, we’re going to be saying, ‘oh, my gosh, I was thinking about bringing my new tech company or my warehouse to Sioux Falls, but my gosh, they stopped a 6 million hog facility slaughterhouse, what does that mean for me?’” Johnson said. “Come on. Not the same thing.”

“What we’re looking for is, if we want to continue to attract businesses, if we want to continue to attract young professionals, maybe the best thing isn’t putting all of our eggs in a six million hog per year hog facility and slaughterhouse. I think that’s a pro-business viewpoint. Some disagree with me, and that’s fine. We’ll let the voters decide.”

Johnson said he has talked to a lot of residents who do not want Sioux Falls to be lumped in with nearby cities known well for their pork processing plants, and referenced how the Wholestone plant would be one of the first things people see when they travel in to Sioux Falls from the north off I-229, just off of Interstate 29.

”For a lot of us, we don’t want to be Worthington. We don’t want to be Sioux City,” Johnson said. “OK, we want to be Sioux Falls, and the first thing to greet tourists, to greet new entrepreneurs coming into town isn’t necessarily a six million hog a year slaughterhouse.”

The former U.S. Attorney said there is already a “brain drain” in Sioux Falls and South Dakota, with some of the brightest young minds moving out of the city and state.

“With the way the workforce is changing, what happens is people pick their cities, not necessarily by where the jobs are, but where they want to live,” Johnson said. “And the reality is, a lot of people, when they go out to Great Bear (skiing and outdoor trail park), they don’t want it to smell like a slaughterhouse.”

Odor, indeed, been at the heart of the anti-slaughterhouse movement. It is the primary marketing plan behind Smart Growth Sioux Falls’ TV ads telling voters to “Stop the Stink” and showing people with clothes hangers over their noses.

Wholestone’s executives told Dakota News Now earlier this year that they’ve spent about $50 million on mitigating odor with “state of the art” technology, and that Sioux Falls residents should not be afraid of the same stench that can be smelled coming from the Smithfield Foods plant just north of downtown.

“I think it’s unfair to compare a 100-year-old facility to a state-of-the-art modern processing plant,” said Christine Erickson, the chair Sioux Falls Open for Business, the group that is leading the ordinance’s opposition. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in the nation. This is the only place that has the technology like this. So, we should be lucky and fortunate to have a facility that cares enough about our environment and cares about adding food production into the industry, as well.”

Johnson’s response?

”I don’t think the world has seen a slaughterhouse that doesn’t stink,” Johnson said. “It’s true that a slaughterhouse built today may not stink as bad as one built 50 years ago. I won’t debate that. But you also can’t debate that there’s not going to be some stink.”

Smart Growth Sioux Falls treasurer Rob Peterson said that odor is subjective, and how someone smells something may not be the way another person smells it.

In a recent Sioux Falls Business article, community leaders in Fremont, Nebraska, said the four-year-old Wholestone plant there has little to no smell and has been a boost to the city.

Peterson told the Rotary crowd that plant is not valid reference.

“Fremont is not similar at all in that it does not have a sewage lagoon,” Peterson said. “It is much smaller in scale. Even then, since they’ve been under Wholestone management, they’ve been cited numerous times for improper dumping of waste and also the inhumane slaughter of animals.”

How much a slaughterhouse would protect the quality of the water of the Sioux Falls area has been a major dispute. Johnson pointed out the river already has an “F” rating by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money over the last 15 years trying to clean up the Big Sioux River,” Peterson said. “If we allow just a million gallons of hog moisture along with two million gallons of treated discharge to just be dumped in the Big Sioux River every single day,” Peterson said, “we’re looking at a serious backslide in the quality of the Big Sioux River. Our namesake — Sioux Falls. And I just don’t think that’s the right direction for the city.”

As a Leif Erikson camper and camp counselor, Peterson said nobody at the camp was allowed to touch Big Sioux River water because it was so dirty. On a recent visit to Scheel’s sporting goods store, Peterson noticed that one of the new fudge treats on sale was called “Big Sioux Sludge.”

“We know it, and we have to laugh about it so we don’t cry,” Peterson said.

The city invested in a new wastewater treatment facility that would be located near the Wholestone plant. The presence of that facility, Erickson said, is one reason why building the plant in the city limits, on its proposed site, makes sense.

“If it’s not here, it will not happen,” Erickson told Dakota News Now two weeks ago. “I will tell you, I have talked to county commissioners. They don’t have the infrastructure to be able to have a wastewater facility to treat wastewater. We have that technology here in Sioux Falls, and our city has been very forward-thinking to make sure that we are connected to Lewis and Clark (water treatment system) so we have enough water.”

But Johnson said he has talked to industry experts who have told him that there are spots in within just a few miles of the city that could house and handle the Wholestone plant. He would not specify those spots.

Preventing traffic congestion has been another rallying cry for Smart Growth Sioux Falls.

Erickson told DNN that being located next to the crossing of two major interstates (I-29 and I-90), will minimize the congestion of trucks of live animals.

“Trucks won’t be going through the middle of town,” Erickson said.

Johnson’s response?

“These trucks — there is no way they’re not coming off Interstate 90, right,” Johnson said. “Right? So, the route on I-90, we’re talking about 100 trucks, approximately, per day with live hogs, and about 130 leaving with dead hogs everyday. That’s a lot of traffic. Will it be going down Phillips Avenue? No. But a lot of us use I-90 and a lot of us use I-299, and it’s going to have an impact.”

The message Johnson repeated more than any on Monday with DNN and the Rotary crowd is that city voters — and not big business or government — should decide on a business that brings as unique of circumstances as slaughterhouses — the assumed stench, the assumed water pollution, and his notion of a reputation as a slaughterhouse city.

Which is exactly why Smart Growth Sioux Falls started its petition drive and then sued Wholestone and the city over the permit to build the facility.

“Wholestone sidestepped the will of the voters by creating a custom butcher shop (on the grounds where the plant is proposed),” Johnson said. “Why we have been trying to do is say, ‘hey, they broke the law by obtaining the permits. They should have never been issued, so that’s what brought us to court and at the end of the day, the voters are going to decide. That’s exactly what we want. We don’t want anyone, no matter how powerful, being able to sidestep the will of the voters.”