Costco protest

A cloudy and rainy raining morning didn't stop opponents of a processing plant being built in Fremont and chicken growing operations in the region, including in Washington County, from gathering in front of the Costco store along Dodge Street in Omaha Saturday morning. The group is calling for a boycott of the store until the retailer agrees to work with groups on a community standards agreement. The processing plant will supply chickens for Costco stores.

With cards spelling out "Costco Pollutes" and "Boycott Costco," opponents of a chicken processing plant in Fremont and four recently-approved, confined animal feeding chicken operations (CAFO) in Washington County, hoped those driving into the parking lot of the Costco Store on Dodge Street in Omaha would think twice about entering the store Saturday.

Organized by Organic Consumers Association, the protest, which included people from Nebraska Communities United, Neighbors United (of Washington County) and the Nebraska Sierra Club, the group demanded officials from Costco meet certain standards and they were prepared to present a community standards agreement to Costco officials.

"We asked for permission to go and present the 15 CBA practices and we were denied the ability and opportunity to present to them, so we are calling for a boycott," Gus VonRoenn of Omaha said.

The community standards agreement drawn up by the group included requirements that the company make certain improvements to its food production model in the areas of environmental pollution, disease outbreak mitigation, poultry growing contracts and workers' rights.

Fremont resident Evelyn McKnight was among those speaking at Saturday's rally. McKnight said there are still a lot of unknowns associated with the processing facility and it's impact on Fremont and the area.

"We do not know what our needs are regarding housing, health education and social services," she said. "Without knowing the needs, we cannot adequately prepare."

She and others would like to see an independent, non-industry firm do a study of the economic and socio-economic impact.

"We want our new neighbors to be comfortable, safe and adequately cared for when they move to Fremont. Without knowing the needs, we will not be able to provide the basic services for these new friends and neighbors.

McKnight was also concerned the pay for the line workers at the plant would not be enough for the to meet the standards of living.

Speaking before the rally started, two Washington County residents said they made the trip to Omaha because they are concerned about possible water pollution and the practice of raising the chickens in confined spaces.

"They will contaminate and pollute the rivers and springs," Mary Ann Johns of rural Blair said. "It's the most inhumane way to raise chickens. It's just disgusting. I think the meat that comes from these factory farms is not the same as chickens running loose. And the eggs are better from free-range chickens."

Barbara Midget, also of rural Blair, attended the rally with Johns.

"I do not like CAFOs," she said, noting chickens and the houses in the area just don't go together. "The one going up by the golf course, that's going to be a bad thing."

Graham Christensen of Omaha, who grew up and is still involved with his family farming operation in Burt County, said everyone at the rally is pro-farmer.

"We actually want to see opportunities for farmers where they don't have to get into stringent contracts where they can provide more and have more say in the day-to-day operations of their business," he said.

He believes there are better ways of farming the area.

A represent of GC Resolve, an environmental consulting group, Graham said there are plans to meet with farmers in Washington County to start conversations about how they can tighten their fiscal belts in this time of downturn in ag commodities by starting to regenerate the soil by covering crops and taking livestock out of confinements and reintegrating them with the land.

Christensen said he'd also like to see Costco work with farmers on setting up grass buffer strips to ensure that waterways are protected.

"It's a very simple thing that could be adopted into their nutrient management plan," he said.

Water degradation can become a public health issue, Christensen said, and if it occurs and is traced back to the Costco plant, action will need to be taken.

"If our water is being poisoned, we will stop it at any point," Christensen said of the plant's construction and/or operation.

He said his group and others are willing to work with officials in implementing community best practices but so far, Costco officials haven't responded.

"We are asking them to respect the environment," he said. "We need them to honor them and if they don't, it's an attack on our local community."

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