By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The March night promised to be chilly. An unusually large crowd turned out for the Sulphur Springs City Council meeting, more than could fit within the warm confines of City Hall, so the meeting was moved to the much larger civic center.
When the doors opened, citizens of the small town about 80 miles east of Dallas and more from surrounding Hopkins County swarmed into the auditorium--some 700 dairy farmers, attorneys, housewives, parents, and tradesmen, more people than anyone could remember seeing even at a Sulphur Springs high-school football game.
Milk cows have long been the backbone of Hopkins County's economy, but dairy farmers have been going under during the past few years. Aside from the new Wal-Mart south of I-30, Sulphur Springs has few new businesses about which to brag. Like many East Texas towns, it perseveres as a rural enclave, its 14,000 or so residents unvisited by great prosperity, and not expecting it anytime soon.
They turned out in large numbers last March to talk to Bo Pilgrim, the storied Texas chicken tycoon. An East Texas boy from two counties over, Pilgrim has parlayed a family feed business into a multimillion-dollar company--the fifth largest producer of processed chicken in the nation.
His company, Pilgrim's Pride, was proposing to expand into Hopkins County, building new plants that could someday add several thousand jobs and send millions of dollars coursing through the anemic local economy. It was a heady prospect for the East Texas dairy lands, where struggling farmers might be lured by talk of so many jobs, and where shopkeepers could always use more cash in the register.
The night's city council meeting was the first chance for citizens to speak their piece on Pilgrim's plan to build a new plant on the old McKenzie tract, a scruffy piece of land just beyond the railroad track that marks the city's northeast border.
Bo Pilgrim and one of his grown sons sat in the front row as townsfolk rose, one after another, to bid their welcome. It would be great for someone to create new jobs in their town, the citizens said. They would love for someone to pump millions of dollars into their economy.
As long as that someone was not Bo Pilgrim.
Speaker after speaker told the council that Pilgrim's chicken plants stink; that the Pilgrim's Pride company has a sorry track record of polluting air, water, and land; that the company hires undocumented workers and pays them poorly.
A Pilgrim's Pride plant offered more trouble than opportunity, the speakers said. All anyone had to do was drive 40 miles east to Mount Pleasant--home of Pilgrim's largest chicken-processing plant--to see the ruin Pilgrim's Pride could wreak on a community.
"Do we aspire for our children to work in the deplorable conditions that Bo Pilgrim provides for his workers?" one woman asked the council.
Another speaker, noting the company's record of fines for pollution from its existing plants in Mount Pleasant and Lufkin, told the council that Pilgrim's environmental record alone "renders this corporation an irresponsible corporate citizen, one that is not worthy of our support."
A few speakers came to Pilgrim's defense during the meeting, but for each speaker favoring the plant, six rose to oppose it. There was no mistaking which way the wind was blowing in Hopkins County that night. Throughout it all, Bo Pilgrim sat quietly. When all was said, he left without speaking before the council or the crowd.
"Bo and Buddy sat through a public meeting that no one should have been put through," recalls Coy Johnson, a Sulphur Springs attorney who had led efforts to bring the Pilgrim's Pride plant to town. "When you invite guests to your home, you don't sit down and insult them. It was embarrassing. If I had been them, I would have walked out."
At the meeting's end, councilmember Stacy Cody tried to offer some kind words to Pilgrim after the thrashing that had been administered. "I would like to say to Mr. Pilgrim and his son that I would not wish this on anybody, even if they were an enemy of mine," Cody said.
Within two days, the deal was dead. The local Economic Development Corporation withdrew an offer which would have given Pilgrim's Pride the McKenzie tract for free, and thrown in other lucrative enticements to boot.
The citizens of Sulphur Springs had done something remarkable. At a time when many rural Texas communities will fight tooth and nail for any new industries--including jails and garbage dumps--as long as they create jobs, Sulphur Springs said no. Faced with a choice between Pilgrim's Pride and nothing, the people of Sulphur Springs demanded nothing, unwilling to allow the chicken company to build in their community no matter what hope it offered to their sluggish economy.
Almost one year has passed since Hopkins County slammed the door on Pilgrim's Pride, but the echo of that abrupt dismissal still rings across East Texas.
To this day, Pilgrim's Pride has been unable to begin construction on its new chicken plant. Since that humiliating night in Sulphur Springs, other towns across East Texas have spurned Pilgrim's entreaties. Not just lonely environmentalists or avid Pilgrim-bashers, but entire communities have risen up to keep Pilgrim's Pride out of their towns.
So far, they have succeeded. The sheer magnitude and fervor of community resistance shows how low the company has sunk in the estimation of many who know the company's track record firsthand.
Bo Pilgrim may be a fabled Texas success story, a onetime poor East Texas farm boy whose personal worth is now estimated at $150 million. He may live in a massive imitation French mansion in Pittsburg which he calls Chateau de Pilgrim and many of his neighbors call Cluckingham Palace. He may travel in privileged circles and give lavishly to state political campaigns, his most recent largess including $80,000 for the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush, and another $50,000 for the governor's inaugural. And Pilgrim may be a favorite of the state's rich and powerful, who gathered 1,500 strong at a black-tie dinner last November in Dallas to bestow on Pilgrim the Russell H. Perry Free Enterprise Award. The award is given annually by Dallas Baptist University to a paragon of Texas business, and the tribute dinner for Pilgrim was sponsored, in part, by The Dallas Morning News.
But to his neighbors in East Texas, the farmers and small-town folk who have smelled his plants and watched Pilgrim's Pride foul their creeks and land, Bo Pilgrim is no hero of free enterprise.
Most say they don't dislike him personally, but fewer and fewer of Pilgrim's neighbors have any inclination to live or do business near him. "Pilgrim's Pride can ruin a town, can ruin a community," says Larry Powers, a Sulphur Springs attorney who aided the fight against the proposed plant. "You've got to be pretty desperate to want something like that."
Bo Pilgrim and his corporate officials did not return repeated phone calls from the Dallas Observer seeking comment for this story.
Pilgrim has been looking for more than a year, but as yet no East Texas community has been desperate enough to want his new chicken plant. Now, with its options running low, Pilgrim's Pride is trying to thwart the uproar and force the plant into Camp County, about 50 miles southeast of Sulphur Springs, where the company's corporate headquarters is located.
The company has applied to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission for permits to discharge sewage into a creek running near a piece of property it already owns. Citizens have responded with more than 500 letters opposing the permits, and the TNRCC has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for late March.
The company is also scrambling to find a source for the huge amounts of water it would take to operate the plant. The nearby Franklin County Water District has water available in its lake, but is refusing to sell it to Pilgrim's Pride in the face of overwhelming opposition from people who live in the area.
In January, the company tried to bypass local resistance, appealing directly to the state Water Development Board to sell it water from the lake. Such a sale would be unprecedented in the history of the water board. At a meeting in Austin last week, Pilgrim's chances of succeeding in his heavy-handed bid for the water appeared to dim. Water Development Board members seemed inclined to defer to the wishes of the local community.
When the Franklin County Water District had considered selling water to Pilgrim last fall, more than 500 people showed up at a meeting to oppose the idea.
That 500 people would show up at a water-board meeting in East Texas is testament enough to the depth of opposition to Pilgrim's Pride. But no one is counting Bo Pilgrim out yet. He pushed his company to the bottom rungs of the Fortune 500 by slaughtering chickens, not cultivating the good will of his neighbors.
Although Bo Pilgrim has made a personal fortune from chickens, nobody would say it has been an easy road.
The chicken business is competitive and unpredictable. Companies like Pilgrim's Pride tread a thin line between profits and loss, easily swayed by price swings and economic flutters.
Pilgrim's Pride's success story has been often chronicled. It started in 1947 when Bo and his late brother Aubrey opened a feed store in Pittsburg and began building their Pilgrim empire, ultimately expanding into chickens and chicken processing.
After Aubrey died of a heart attack in 1966, Bo Pilgrim continued on, building the company until it reached more than $100 million in annual sales. In the 1980s, Pilgrim introduced the whole boneless chicken--achieved through a secret deboning process that Bo invented himself--and started to become something of a Texas icon.
Pilgrim began appearing in his own television ads, wearing a black pilgrim's hat and carrying a stuffed chicken named Henrietta. He became a walking symbol of his company, cultivating the image known to most Texans of an aw-shucks, down-home country boy just trying to sell a few chickens. In his early ads, he promised customers he would never sell a "fat, yellow chicken." Newer ads tell grocery shoppers that there is nothing but "chicken in my chicken."
The company's fortunes have ebbed and flowed. In 1988, Pilgrim almost sold the company to Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the country's largest chicken processor, but Tyson pulled out of the deal at the last minute.
By 1989, Pilgrim's Pride had pushed its way into the bottom of the Fortune 500, debuting at number 496 by selling more than $500 million in chickens the year before.
By 1992, falling prices and rapid expansion caused the company to lose almost $30 million in one year, and Pilgrim's Pride defaulted on some of its loans. The company was forced to ask creditors for more time to pay its debts.
Heavy investments in Mexico--where Pilgrim's Pride is now the second-largest chicken processor---helped pull the company out of its financial trough, but those same operations are now dragging the company's bottom line. Last January, the company reported a 93-percent drop in quarterly profits caused primarily by the devaluation of the peso.
Pilgrim's Pride racked up record sales in 1995, topping $930 million, but the company lost $8 million during the 1995 fiscal year, mainly because of continuing problems with its Mexico operations. Bo Pilgrim, at the time, said the company's U.S. operations were going strong, but that peso devaluations and problems with the Mexican economy had hammered the company. He said $30 million in losses in Mexico canceled the company's other profits and put it in the hole.
Even so, Pilgrim's Pride remains the nation's fifth-largest producer of processed chicken, with more than 11,000 employees working at its processing plants, hatcheries, and feed mills in Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mexico. Some of its chickens are sold in grocery stores under the Pilgrim's Pride brand. Many more are sold directly to food companies and fast-food restaurants.
Over the years, Bo Pilgrim has earned a reputation for something more than just making money. His company has periodically been accused of violating state and federal environmental and labor laws.
In 1985, Pilgrim was a member of the Texas Water Development Board--ironically, the same body he is now approaching for help with his problems in East Texas. During the six years Pilgrim was on the board, the Houston Chronicle reported in 1985, Pilgrim's company repeatedly was allowed to violate state pollution limits on effluent flowing from its East Texas plant.
Residents of Mount Pleasant, home of Pilgrim's largest processing facility, complained that Pilgrim's Pride was allowing chicken blood and guts to flow into streams, roads, and pastures. The problems were so bad that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the company to stop polluting immediately.
That same year, 1985, the responsibility of enforcing state water-pollution laws passed from the Water Development Board to the newly created Texas Water Commission. With just hours left before the Water Development Board gave up its enforcement powers, the agency's staff signed an agreement with board member Pilgrim giving the company more time to clean up its operations without facing fines for violations.
Pilgrim, at the time, belittled the critics who were complaining about pollution from his Mount Pleasant plant. "Lots of cities in the state of Texas from time to time violate their [water] permits," Pilgrim was quoted as saying. "The people who criticize industry and cities on environmental problems don't know what they are saying. The problem is that people who talk on telephones and work with filing cabinets are not aware of the problems of supplying food for the nation."
Since the 1980s, state environmental regulators have hit Pilgrim's Pride with more than a half-million dollars in fines for various violations of pollution laws. In July 1995, the company agreed to pay another $325,000--the largest fine in state history for violations not involving hazardous waste--for repulsive odors and water pollution from its plants in Mount Pleasant and Lufkin.
Residents of Mount Pleasant have complained about the stench from Pilgrim's plant for years, and have been dissatisfied with the company's repeated promises to solve the problem. Last April, for instance, the Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune ran an editorial column saying the plant's odors "can only be called abuse."
"Surely, they [Pilgrim's Pride] can see that it was the stink in Mount Pleasant that cost them the plant deal in Sulphur Springs," columnist Bob Palmer wrote. "Having a stink that would gag a maggot for six or eight days in February, when the temperature is not really hot enough yet to get the guts really smelling, is totally unacceptable."
Pilgrim's Pride has had trouble on other fronts as well. A woman living near one of the company's facilities is now suing Pilgrim's Pride, claiming that runoff from company property is laced with arsenic--used in chicken feed to speed up growth--that has killed her cattle.
Employees have complained to the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission that Pilgrim's Pride intimidates injured workers to prevent them from filing workers-compensation claims. Dr. Louis Arrondo of Mount Vernon, one of the area's few Spanish-speaking physicians, has also sued the company, claiming that Pilgrim's Pride has tried to cut him out of business because he attempted to provide medical care--and submit insurance claims--for workers injured at Pilgrim's plants.
Pilgrim himself will never live down the notoriety he gained in 1989 when he appeared on the floor of the Texas Senate--shortly before it was due to vote on changing state workers-compensation laws--and passed out $10,000 checks to lawmakers as campaign contributions.
Few question that chicken plants are a dirty and potentially dangerous business. Residents in East Texas liken them to the slaughterhouses of Upton Sinclair's landmark exposŽ The Jungle, set in Chicago in the early 20th century--places where low-wage immigrant workers toil for hours amid blood and carnage killing, plucking, cleaning, and slicing chickens on high-speed assembly lines.
In a 1994 article exploring unsavory American workplaces, the Wall Street Journal, while not specifically mentioning Pilgrim's Pride, highlighted chicken plants as prime examples of American industries which have "consigned a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions."
Concerns also extend to the raising of the chickens as well. For the most part, Pilgrim's Pride contracts with local farmers to raise chickens, and provides the needed feed. That results in a countryside dotted with chicken coops producing voluminous amounts of chicken waste.
Partly because of the nature of the industry, and partly because of Pilgrim's Pride's way of doing business, the company has earned a particularly bad reputation in its home state. The tarnish on Pilgrim's name has been highlighted by the company's difficulties in finding a location for a new plant in East Texas.
The first word of an economic windfall headed for Hopkins County came from a screaming headline on February 22, 1995, in the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram. The banner headline read, "3,500 jobs in 7 years," and the accompanying story explained how Pilgrim's Pride was going to create a "mind-boggling" number of jobs by building new chicken plants just outside of town.
That afternoon, at a triumphant press conference, Bo Pilgrim and company officials joined in a formal announcement of the deal, attended by dozens of the county's most influential politicians and businessmen.
After just three weeks of secret negotiations with the Sulphur Springs-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation, the leaders announced, a win-win deal had been cut. The company would be given free use of the 110-acre McKenzie tract to begin constructing operations that might someday grow to provide the heralded 3,500 jobs. Taxpayers would add a lot of favors to the free land. Under the deal, the Economic Development Corporation--funded by tax dollars and bond revenue--would pay Pilgrim's Pride $1 million for the first 300 jobs it created, and $500,000 for each 150 jobs created thereafter.
The Economic Development Corporation would also pay $150,000 to begin foundation work at the site, and promised to improve roads, construct rail spurs, and run utility lines. The corporation also promised to help Pilgrim's Pride pursue 100-percent tax abatements from the county, school, andhospital districts.
For Coy Johnson, Sulphur Springs attorney and president of the Economic Development Corporation, the announcement marked a moment of utter triumph. Luring industry to town was exactly what Johnson believed his mission to be. The dairy industry in Hopkins County was hurting. How could anyone be upset at the prospect of 3,500 jobs?
"Everybody was tickled to death when it was announced," Johnson recalls. "Then, this snowball got going."
A few days later, local attorney Larry Powers was at the Optimist Club's basketball league, where his daughter was playing. Talk of Pilgrim's Pride naturally dominated the day. "The vast majority of the people at the game said, 'Gee, maybe this isn't such a good deal,'" Powers says, "but everybody assumed it was a done deal."
Several miles away, another man didn't like the looks of the deal at all. Randy Bouldin was born and bred in Hopkins County, his family having moved to the area sometime around 1908. Bouldin and much of his kin live in Thomasville, an unincorporated rural enclave just outside the Sulphur Springs city limits. The McKenzie tract, site of the envisioned plant, is right next to Thomasville.
Bouldin is a 49-year-old cattle farmer who grew up in Thomasville, and came back to care for his ailing mother after a few years spent in the military and working in Dallas. Sulphur Springs had already stuck a sewage-treatment plant and trash-compacting station out near Thomasville, he says, and he was none too happy about the prospect of Pilgrim's Pride moving into the area as well.
"There was no news at all about Pilgrim's Pride coming to town, and all of a sudden one day you've got a big headline here that says, '3,500 jobs coming to town,'" Bouldin says. "I didn't sleep too well for a night or two."
Bouldin started talking with some of his neighbors, and found that many, as he says, "were favorable against it."
That Sunday, Bouldin went to a local radio station and asked that residents opposed to the plant gather at his house that afternoon. While he was waiting for folks to show up, Bouldin figured it would be wise to have an attorney handy. He remembered a buddy of his from the Jaycees, Larry Powers, and called to invite him to attend.
At the appointed time--on just a few hours' notice--about 70 people assembled. The first meeting of the anti-Pilgrim forces spilled off the front porch and into the yard.
"It started out as being a reaction to Pilgrim, because we knew their reputation," Bouldin says. "He's got a reputation as being a bad neighbor and for being a poor corporate citizen. He comes in, he doesn't pay [local] taxes, he pollutes the environment, and then he pollutes the community as well."
After grumbling about Pilgrim for a while, the assembled crowd asked Powers for his legal opinion of their chances to stop the plant. Powers ad-libbed--correctly, it would turn out--that any deal proposed by the Economic Development Corporation probably had to be approved by the Sulphur Springs City Council before it would become binding.
That was all the Pilgrim opponents needed to hear.
A citizens' rebellion, waged by telephone, bumper sticker, and printed flier, was under way, and it would be successful in a remarkably short amount of time.
For the next two weeks, the anti-Pilgrim forces worked out of the conference room at Powers' law office near the courthouse square. At a veneer table beneath stuffed fish and deer heads, volunteers put together mailings and information sheets. They collected and passed out clips on Pilgrim's Pride's past environmental abuses. "Just Say No to Bo" bumper stickers began sprouting around town.
As opposition to the plant swelled, Johnson found himself running about defending the deal, speaking before clubs and granting interviews. The pitched battle promised to come to a head at the March 7 city council meeting. That promise was realized.
Sulphur Springs is a town of about 14,000, and no one can recall ever seeing 700 people at a council meeting in the town's history. To put the crowd size in perspective, in proportion to population it would be the equivalent of 50,000 people showing up for a Dallas City Council meeting.
By meeting's end, the councilmembers had gotten the unequivocal message that Pilgrim's Pride was not welcome in Sulphur Springs. Although the council took no formal action, Johnson says the deal was skewered after that night.
The Economic Development Corporation formally voted to withdraw its offer the next day. It had taken just two weeks for citizen revolt to scotch a multimillion-dollar deal backed by the area's most powerful leaders and a Fortune 500 company.
When he announced that the deal was dead, Johnson also resigned from the Economic Development Corporation in disgust. He has laid low ever since, loath to get involved in local politics. Sitting in his law office, his schnauzer Austin sleeping in a nearby wingback chair, Johnson still mourns the loss of Pilgrim's Pride, calling it a "tragic mistake" for the community where he has lived all of his life.
"Everybody was on board," he says. "We had everything in this county available for this plant. Now, I would think that a Fortune 500 company would think twice before they came into this town."
Powers' view is markedly different. After helping organize the opposition, he was elected to the City Council in his first run for political office. Powers says he still hopes to bring new industry to town, but believes he was elected largely to watch out for a repeat of the Pilgrim's Pride fiasco.
So why did the citizens react so vigorously to the prospect of a Pilgrim's Pride plant?
Johnson blames it on racism. He says area residents had visions of hordes of Hispanic workers descending on their community. "It was all racial, and it was handled in such a way of saying, 'We don't want our cultural community changed,'" Johnson says.
Opponents say it is not that simple. They agree that low-income households were among their fears, given the wages that Pilgrim's Pride pays, averaging about $6.50 an hour for line workers, but there was much more to their opposition, and a lot of it had to do with Pilgrim's Pride itself. All have relatives or friends who live in Mount Pleasant. Most have suffered the smell of blood and heated chicken guts that comes from the plant there, and the proposed Sulphur Springs plant would have been nearly as big.
Bouldin says residents also feared what would happen when hundreds, if not thousands, of people came in to fill jobs at Pilgrim's plant. The company would pay no property taxes, but the new residents would tax the schools and county hospital.
Powers says there was no obvious benefit to the community, only downsides. "Mount Pleasant is the model, and his impact over there has been horrible," Powers says. Aside from plant odors, Mount Pleasant has been forced to grapple with school overcrowding caused by transient workers hired at the Pilgrim plant.
After it was rebuffed, Pilgrim's Pride did not give up on Hopkins County completely.
A couple of months later, the company again tried to obtain the McKenzie tract, this time without all the incentives and tax breaks thrown in. The community fever started to rise again, and the town's Industrial Foundation--a private, nonprofit group which holds title to the land--decided not to sell it to Pilgrim.
Then, in July, Pilgrim's Pride agreed to pay its $325,000 fine, the largest in state history for pollution not involving hazardous waste. By then, Pilgrim's Pride had backed off on Hopkins County and was looking elsewhere.
Those who successfully opposed the plant couldn't have been happier. "I thought he [Bo] was a nice guy," says attorney Powers, "but I thought he was in a bad industry."
The company resumed its search for a new site. The key would be water, which chicken plants need a lot of. Sulphur Springs had had a generous water supply, and now Pilgrim's Pride needed to find another one.
In the ensuing months, Pilgrim's Pride shopped its plans for a new plant around East Texas, reportedly approaching several cities including Tyler and Jacksonville.
"They've tried to go a lot of places--New Boston, Longview, Kilgore," says state Sen. Bill Ratliff, whose district includes a large chunk of the territory Pilgrim has been scouting. The general outrage seen in Sulphur Springs did not repeat itself because Pilgrim's proposals never made it that far in other towns.
"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.
"This is clearly an issue of considerable discussion in that county," Pederson says. "We certainly want to work with the local community."
The county water board has one month to accept the state's offer, and would have to ante up the $3.3 million by August 1996. That's a heap of money for a water district with an annual budget of just $450,000, but district officials say they are going to try to raise it.
"In order to control our own destiny, we want to control the reservoir," says Ed Withers, manager of the water district. The district, he adds, will almost certainly have to call a bond election and see if local residents are willing to pony up the money to eliminate Pilgrim's chances of getting any water.
"Water has become like gold, because there's so precious little of it left that's not already committed in one direction or another," says a member of the Mount Vernon school board who asked not to be identified because opposing Pilgrim's Pride is a tricky proposition for East Texas elected officials. "I think we would try to stop any sale to [Pilgrim's Pride]. We're just talking about a simple citizen rebellion at this point."
From her family farm south of Pittsburg, Susan Nugent has watched the travails of her East Texas neighbors with great interest. Nugent has been fighting Pilgrim's Pride for years. She is the one suing the company for allegedly poisoning her cattle with arsenic-laced runoff from its operations.
Nugent was once married, back in the 1970s, to one of Bo Pilgrim's nephews. For a long time, she has been a lonely voice, one of the few people who would openly criticize the largest employer in Camp and Titus counties. Folks in her home town don't dare challenge Pilgrim the way other counties have, she says. "Folks in Pittsburg are not going to speak out like people in Mount Pleasant or Mount Vernon."
She has tracked the happenings in Sulphur Springs and Mount Vernon. Often, residents of those communities have called to tap her extensive knowledge of Pilgrim's operations.
In a sad way, she says, she is heartened that Pilgrim's efforts to build a new plant have now mobilized other communities in East Texas. "Each county has different problems," Nugent says. "I'm glad that people are becoming aware of the problem. It saddens me that these little towns are having to go through all that."
If Pilgrim's Pride does pursue legal action, Nugent is afraid the state Water Development Board might be forced to give Pilgrim what he wants, thwarting Franklin County's right to decide for itself who can buy its water.
Even if Franklin County is successful in blocking the sale to Pilgrim's Pride, the company will undoubtedly cast about for another water supply, she says.
Once the company finds a water source, only the TNRCC will stand in the way of the plant. The state agency must grant the company permits to discharge its plant effluent into a north Camp County creek.
The will of East Texans, she says, has been enunciated quite clearly. The last chance that it will be ignored rests in Austin.
"I want to have faith that folks in Austin will listen to all those people," she says, "but we shall see.