By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"In my opinion what is happening is that people in northeast Texas who have driven through Mount Pleasant and smelled the plant wonder whether or not they want any of that in their community," Ratliff says. "I think most communities will go after quality industry, but these communities look at the record here and decide they'll look for something else."
Last fall, Pilgrim apparently decided it might be easiest just to go ahead and build the plant on land it already owns in Camp County, just a few miles up the highway from its corporate headquarters in Pittsburg. The company applied for permits from the TNRCC to discharge wastewater into a creek in northern Camp County.
The largest obstacle to its latest plan is procuring water, and that quest has fomented the second round of fervent battle between Pilgrim's Pride and a nearby community.
Chicken plants require an average of about six gallons of water per bird--for such things as cleaning and sanitation. A full-scale chicken plant of the type envisioned by Pilgrim's Pride can use millions of gallons a day.
Franklin County, a small county just northwest of Camp County, has that much water available in its reservoir at Lake Cypress Springs for sale to interested industries or businesses. In August of last year, Pilgrim's Pride quietly began negotiating with the Franklin County Water District to buy the available water, says Shirley Maples, the district's office manager. The company initially sought to buy 5,600 acre-feet of water a year from the reservoir, although it has since scaled back its request to 2,820 acre-feet.
The water district entered into talks with the company, and was considering the sale. Then local citizens got word of what was happening. The water board initially had planned to vote on the sale in August, but delayed the vote until October--Halloween, in fact--in the face of growing local opposition.
On Halloween night, more than 500 people showed up to oppose the water sale. The speakers reiterated many of the concerns about Pilgrim's Pride that had earlier given impetus to opponents in Sulphur Springs: Pilgrim's environmental track record and the problems a new plant would create, even if it was built one county away.
On top of those concerns, Franklin County residents were outraged that their water might be sold for an out-of-county plant. "They just didn't want Mr. Pilgrim to have the water," Maples says.
The water-district board voted unanimously to nix the sale of water to Pilgrim's Pride, but the matter did not stop there. Technically, the Franklin County Water District does not own the Lake Cypress Springs reservoir free and clear, because it was built under an arrangement with the state Water Development Board that was commonly used in the 1960s to help small communities develop water supplies. When the lake was constructed in the late 1960s, Franklin County and the state split the costs, and each held ownership of about half the lake. Since then, the Franklin County Water District has been slowly buying out the state's share. In theory, the water district will eventually own the lake itself, but as things stand now, the state Water Development Board still owns about 36 percent of the reservoir, according to Janice Cartwright, the board's director of marketing and customer relations.
At a January board meeting in Austin, Pilgrim told the board that he wants the state to sell his company its share of the water directly, or force the Franklin County Water District to approve the sale. Pilgrim complained that he was being "discriminated" against, and made statements that to some area residents vaguely sounded like threats of a potential lawsuit. "The local people in Franklin County certainly think that's what he was inferring," says Ratliff. "I think he wanted to leave that inference."
Suzanne Schwartz, the Water Development Board's general counsel, says the agency was "not threatened with a lawsuit, [but] he did indicate that he thought there was an obligation to sell water to him."
The state board ordinarily defers to local water districts' decisions concerning who will be allowed to buy water, Schwartz says. In fact, she says, she knows of no other instance in which the state has stepped in and sold its share of water directly to someone other than the local water district.
Franklin County's Water District Board, bolstered by heated local opposition, is trying to beat back Pilgrim's water grab, and the state Water Development Board apparently wants to stay out of the fight.
At its regular monthly meeting in Austin last week, the state board voted to allow Franklin County to buy out the state's interest in Lake Cypress Springs for $3.3 million. Under the terms of its contract with the state, the Franklin County Water District has the right to buy out the state's interest in the reservoir before anyone else.
Craig Pederson, executive administrator of the state board, says the agency has received "hundreds of letters from Franklin County, the vast majority in opposition" to any water sale to Pilgrim's Pride. If Franklin County can raise the $3.3 million to buy out the state's share, Pederson says, then the local officials will be able to control fully who buys water, shutting down Pilgrim's end run to the state.