By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that his administration is trying to speed up the time it takes for poultry farms to get environmental permits.
The Republican governor said after a speech to the Farm Bureau that his goal is for the state to strike the “right balance between our stewardship responsibilities and making certain we’re providing product and providing jobs.”
Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson said neighboring states are quicker to grant permits for chicken farms and noted that Tennessee’s rules are slightly stricter than federal standards.
“And that’s one of the problems,” he said.
Animal waste-handling permits are issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and Johnson said he’s been holding discussions with that agency to try to streamline the process.
“We’re competing with Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky, who are doing it faster than we are,” Johnson said. “Industry is expressing concerns.”
Environmental advocates want state officials to carefully consider the negatives of changing standards.
“Our main concern with the loosening of regulations for factory farms would be to ensure that there is no ground or surface water contamination,” Mary Helen Clarke, board president of Tennessee Conservation Voters, said in an email.
“While we support helping Tennessee’s farmers, we would want to monitor any changes for environmental impacts.”
Poultry is Tennessee’s third largest agricultural product, after cattle and soybeans.
“Rural Tennessee has been hit hard with the loss of industry, and in the last 10 years (poultry) has been our major growth area in agriculture,” Johnson said. “And it’s kept a lot of young farmers on the farm that otherwise would have to go to town.”
Officials stress that the changes they are seeking have more to do with reducing the time it takes to obtain permits than with changing the rules on how chicken waste must be handled.
“It’s just about working through that process to ensure that we’re not duplicating efforts between departments, and that producers are not hearing two different versions of what they’re required to meet,” said Tom Womack, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.
Major chicken processing plants in Tennessee include the Tyson facilities in Shelbyville and Union City, Koch Foods in Morristown and Pilgrim in Chattanooga. Each processing plant has about 300 to 400 suppliers within a 150-mile radius, Womack said.