Clearing up confusion about the slaughterhouse ordinance

City councilors make a final push against it, while group fighting for it responds to claims of misleading voters
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 11:26 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The voters of Sioux Falls on Tuesday will decide if the city should have an ordinance banning new slaughterhouses in city limits.

The measure revolves around the possible building of a Wholestone Farms pork processing plant in an industrial zone near I-229 and Benson Road. The city is being sued by the group Smart Growth Sioux Falls, which led the charge for the 10,000 petition signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

It’s been messy, and not just because of the mud-slinging from both sides.

Over $1 million and loads of time in local media has been spent on leaders making their cases, but they all admit they’ve had to spend plenty of their energy make sure voters know what their vote actually means.

And on the day before the election, just in case there were voters who are just now tuning in and may be confused, three city councilors are speaking out.

”Constituents have been asking me a lot of questions the last few weeks about what a “yes” vote means or a “no” vote means in this,” said city councilor Marshall Selberg. “It’s a lot of word jumble with this whole thing.”

So much so, that Selberg and fellow councilors Alex Jensen and Curt Soehle have gone on a last-minute media blitz to — well, unjumble.

They are opponents of the ordinance, which means they want Wholestone here. Robert Peterson is the treasurer and lead spokesman for the group behind the ordinance, Smart Growth Sioux Falls, which is trying to prevent future slaughterhouses, and to get voters to “vote yes” on the measure.

Peterson said those he talked to were also confused about the ordinance’s wording.

”So, we focused almost exclusively for the majority of the campaign on educating voters on what a yes vote means, which means “yes” to ban new slaughterhouses,” Peterson said.

Perhaps you have seen the “Stop the Stink” ads. A sliver of them is in the video at the top of the page in this article. They focus on the claim that bringing new slaughterhouses to Sioux Falls will cause foul odor and pollute the water quality in Sioux Falls.

Peterson said these commercials have helped clear up the confusion behind what a “yes” vote means, and credited local media with also helping It got the “no” vote, pro-slaughterhouse side’s attention.

”The ad campaigns we’ve seen out there that we’ve seen from the opponents of Wholestone have been, while creative, maybe light on the facts,” Selberg said.

To that, Peterson said, “Everything we say is 100 percent sourced, 100 percent fact-checked, and 100 percent true. We’re the only campaign founded by people who live and work in Sioux Falls, and we made sure to do our homework, our research, and we brought it. We brought it to the city council. We brought our concerns to the city council and were brushed off. And were brushed off multiple times.”

The three councilors would not address the ongoing lawsuit, filed in September, in which Smart Growth sued the City of Sioux Falls after the council granted a permit for a butcher shop to be build on the Wholestone Farms land, which had its ribbon cutting last month. A judge later determined those permits were illegally granted, and to let voters decide on the slaughterhouse ordinance before moving forward in court.

Meanwhile, Dakota News Now asked both the councilors what they thought were misleading the “Stop the Stink” ads, and gave Peterson a chance to respond to those claims.

The foul odor claims

City Council vice chair Alex Jensen pointed out the clothes pins pinching the noses of the spokespeople in the “Yes Means Less” and “Stop the Stink” commercials, funded by Smart Growth. He said claiming a pork processing plant will leave a stench is misleading voters.

“If you go more than a half mile from where this project is going to happen, that’s where the water reclamation project is for the city of Sioux Falls,” Jensen said. “200,000 people every single day flush the toilet in this city. That’s where the waste goes, and it’s reclamated there.”

Peterson said that remark “doesn’t make any sense.”

“Wholestone won’t smell because of a wastewater treatment center,” Peterson said. “It will smell because it is slaughtering six million hogs per year, they’re rendering byproducts, they’re building a whitewater sewage lagoon and they’re going to have hundreds of trucks transporting live and dead animals everyday.”

Jensen pointed out that part of the $500 million Wholestone is investing into the project is $50 million in odor reduction technology, which Luke Minion, the CEO of Wholestone’s parent company Pipestone Holdings, told Dakota News Now back in April.

Peterson’s response now is the same as it was then, and he cited Minion.

“Let’s just listen to Wholestone’s executives, who have said, quote, ‘I can’t promise it will never smell.’ And they’re right. They can’t promise it will never smell. That’s why they talk about mitigation instead of elimination.

Asked Monday by Dakota News Now if he and Wholestone Farms could guarantee there will never be a stench coming from the new plant, Soehle said, “There are no guarantees in life.”

But he followed that remark by mentioning the trip he made to a trip to the Prestage Farms plant in Eagle Grove, Iowa, a plant that is similarly modern to what Wholestone has said it will be.

“There’s no smell outside of the building,” Soehle said. “That’s my personal observation. If people really want to know, they should go down there and look at it.”

The water supply issue

Peterson pointed out that Mason City, Iowa, residents rejected a Prestage plant, which is why it ended up in Eagle Grove.

“The idea that our opponents are pushing that (Wholestone) has to be located here, that there’s no other spot this mega-slaughterhouse can be located, that it can’t be located outside city limits, is just flat-out false.”

In October, supporters of Wholestone told Dakota News Now made this claim.

“If it’s not here, it will not happen,” said Christine Erickson, the chair of Sioux Falls Open for Business, the group behind the “Vote No” campaign.

“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.”

Three million gallons of water each day would required handle the waste from the hog processing plant.

“There is no question that Wholestone drawing three million gallons of water a day will put a strain on the city’s water supply and make the water scarcer for Sioux Falls residents. Three million gallons a day. That’s as much as 32,000 residents of Sioux Falls. And when we have this water going to pigs instead of people, we put our future growth at serious risk.”

Jenson said, “that is not a fact,” citing the investments city of Sioux Falls has made in the Lewis and Clark system less than a year ago.

“There’s public testimony that (the system) would supply water into future decades,” Jensen said. “So, we have water supply for 30 years.”

The water pollution claims

Part of the “Vote Yes” ads have told voters that rejecting future slaughterhouses will mean you are voting “yes” for clean water. Peterson and other proponents of the ordinance have said it will jeopardize the water quality of the Big Sioux River.

“There’s no question that the discharging of three million gallons of wastewater into the Big Sioux River — one million of it consisting of hog feces, blood, bile, and whatever other moisture comes with hogs — will absolutely devalue the quality of our river.”

Jensen said the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources will “regulate this just like they regulate any industry that would ever be permitted to use the Big Sioux River. If they’re bad community members, they’ll be fined.”

Peterson said those fines have “absolutely no effect.”

“We’ve seen how effective they’ve been in the past,” Peterson said. “They have not deterred companies from continuing to pollute the river.”

Peterson noted the Big Sioux River received an “F” grade in 2021 for Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and E. coli levels. The grades are determined by scores and trends from impairment data from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources which divides segments of the river.

In responding, Jensen noted that the group “Friends of the Big Sioux River” — which tests the water quality weekly and whose stated mission is “to protect and restore the Big Sioux River and its watershed, improve the water quality, and educate our community to build a conservation ethic” — has been neutral on the slaughterhouse ordinance.

The bigger picture

The proponents of the slaughterhouse ordinance — who do not want Wholestone or any future slaughterhouses to be built in the Sioux Falls city limits — claim they are fighting for air quality and water quality.

But their campaign is also a response to the opponents of the ordinance, who are concerned that the “yes” votes winning, and the ordinance being implemented, will drive away future businesses from coming to Sioux Falls, a line repeated by Gov. Kristi Noem over the summer.

On Tuesday, Selberg quipped about how the “Yes” messaging is off in the “Vote Yes” commercials.

“I agree that ‘yes’ means less,” Selberg said. “Well, I agree ‘yes’ because it means 1,000 less jobs, 500 million dollars less in construction, millions lost in the economic revenue in both the agricultural industry and in our local economy. It means less in our reputation in Sioux Falls. When people come to start a business in the future, are they going to look at this example, and say, ‘here’s a company that’s followed the rules for four years, and yet, we’re going to pull the rug out from underneath them?”

In his appearance at the Sioux Falls downtown rotary club two weeks ago, Brendan Johnson, the legal counsel for Smart Growth Sioux Falls, said this viewpoint is overblown.

“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.”

In response to this, Soehl, the city council’s chair, said, “the people who don’t want the slaughterhouse can spin this whatever way they want to. We’ve just got one guy who doesn’t want to look at it, and he’s put millions of dollars into this campaign. I don’t agree with that.”

Soehl is referring to POET CEO Jeff Broin, who lives near the proposed sight of the Wholestone Farms land. The latest campaign finance reports published by the city clerk’s office show that the biofuel company gave more than $1 million to Smart Growth Sioux Falls in its campaign to ban new slaughterhouses from being built in city limits. This is the largest donation given to either side of the ordinance fight.

When asked about the claim that this ordinance boils down to the notion that it is about one powerful person, Peterson offered this:

“This is about the 50-plus businesses who signed on to the letter to the City Council. This is about the 10,000 residents who signed the petition to put the ordinance on the ballot.”

A reminder, if you’ve cared enough to read up on the issue this far in this article:

“Yes” means “no” on future slaughterhouses in the city limits.

“No” means “yes” to building the Wholestone Farms plant, and potentially others.