By ALEX NAITO and
Seats were scarce at the Dallesport Community Center on June 9 as about 100 local citizens packed an informational meeting regarding a proposed meat processing plant in the Dallesport Industrial Park. The plant would produce specialty beef for the world market.
The issue has generated controversy and created a deep division among members of the Dallesport community.
R.L. Freeborn and Tom Gudykumst of Western Meat Processors and Klickitat County Commissioner Joan Frey attempted to explain the details of the plant and ease local concerns.
The meeting was led by Mary Zemke, a County Commissioner from Jefferson County, Ore. Zemke is a paid consultant for the company proposing the slaughterhouse facility.
Proposed is a $30 million, high tech plant that promises to create as many as 200 jobs. Plans call for more than 500 cattle per day to be processed at the planned 60,000 square feet facility. Cattle would be trucked in from all over the West, which would require about 35-40 trucks a day.
Proponents of the facility claim the plant would be ultra-clean and modern, with no foul odors.
The June 9 meeting began with a presentation that covered the specifics of the plant, including environmental effects, resource consumption, and economic impact on the community.
Even after three hours, many were not satisfied with the answers.
Dallesport resident Don McDermott said he was unhappy with the format because he said it didn't allow people to adequately express their concerns.
"We didn't get to directly ask questions," McDermott said. McDermott also contended the information provided was either not factual or vague.
Pat Williams, a former Community Council member, said she felt the issue had already been decided and that the commissioners had been keeping the people of Dallesport out of the loop.
"This is already a done deal," Williams said. "They have been working on this project for years."
Her concerns were echoed by several others in attendance who felt that they should have been allowed to vote on the issue.
While the project still has to be approved by the Planning Department and find investors, Frey admitted at the meeting that the county has verbally committed $350,000 to $500,000 toward the project.
"I'm eager to watch this group go through the process. And I hope they succeed," said Frey. "It's going to benefit the county and the industry."
Zemke assured the audience they would be given an opportunity to attend Planning Department conditional use permit public hearings. Those hearings have not yet been scheduled.
According to Freeborn, a fourth-generation cattle rancher who now lives in Lone Pine, Ore., the plant will not be typical for a slaughterhouse.
"This will be the next generation of meat packing plants," Freeborn said. "Our plant would be the most modern plant in the world if it were up and running today."
Proponents of the plant claim the facility would produce zero discharge, and use waste from the animals to fuel a renewable energy plant on site -- thereby cutting the plant's consumption of natural gas. Water from the plant would also be cleaned and used in the plant's powerhouse. Promoters claim the odors from the cattle would be fully contained, because the holding pen would be walled, with air flow coming through the top of the building. Odors would be forced through charcoal-lined pipes that would clean it before leaving the plant.
Freeborn used a comparable meat packing plant in New Zealand as an example.
"There is a carbon filtration system which makes sure all the air that goes in and out is filtered," he said.
Additionally, Freeborn said all the waste material produced by the animals will be used to power the plant.
Many in the audience were not convinced zero discharge was possible.
"You can't just tell us that there are plants on the other side of the world that are doing this," McDermott said. "You need to prove to me that what is coming to our community is what you say it is."
There was also dispute over the economic benefits of the plant. The proposal promises more than 200 new (non-union) jobs with an estimated payroll of $3.9 million. It also projects an additional $358,519 in new revenue from tax benefits.
"You would be surprised at the assortment and variety of skills needed at the plant," Zemke said.
Williams said the site could be sold to a company that would provide much better starting wages.
"At $9 an hour, this is an insult," he said. "We want businesses that pay livable wages."
Residents were concerned there would not be enough low-income housing in the community to support that many workers, and expressed fear that crime rates would increase.
Frey said she believes there is enough housing, and many people in the area would be happy to be making $9 an hour, especially with all the benefits offered by the company.
Those benefits are proposed to include family health care, on-site child care, and a discount meat buying program.
"These are incredibly nice benefits," Zemke said. "The company is not doing it for altruistic reasons, but because it makes economic sense."
Freeborn says he wants a low turnover rate in his workforce because he believes people are more productive if they are invested in the company.
"We want families to want to work there," Freeborn said. "We want them to come into these jobs and look at it as a career. I'm hoping a lot of the labor force will be your out-of-work neighbors. We're not trying to recruit workers from other areas."
Despite all the reassurances, many left expressing continued dissatisfaction with the project.
"There are a lot of points that still need to be gone over," said Bruce Schatz of The Dalles. "We're going to be looking right across the river at it."
After the meeting, Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck said he believed most people wanted to see the plant come in.
"The majority of people, once they got the full presentation, it seemed like they were supportive. There were a core group that had some concerns. But overall it was positive," Struck said. "If everything they say comes true, it's a great opportunity for the county."
Struck added that he understood the concerns voiced by some of the residents.
"Those were the first things I thought too when I heard about it. That much livestock per day seemed monumental to me," he said.
But Struck pointed out that the facility would be built about half a mile east of Highway 197 at the northeastern part of the Port of Klickitat property.
"The site is down in a little valley. There is pretty good separation from residences, it's over a mile from the nearest residences," Struck said. "It's a great site for it, it's pretty remote, and it's not visible from other Port lots that are shovel-ready. Even the traffic won't be going by there. And they assure us there are not going to be any odors or noise, because operations would be kept inside the plant."
Proponents of the plant were originally looking at Madras, Ore., to build the meat processing plant, "but didn't feel there was the workforce to support it there," Struck said.
Shipping options at Dallesport were another positive enticement, with access to railroads, river, and highways.
According to Struck, the county hasn't yet guaranteed any money to the project.
"We haven't committed, but told them if the project has its financial backing in line, the county, on behalf of the Port of Klickitat, would put in utilities and pave the road to the site. Water, sewer, and gas lines are all close, and the county would pick up the tab to run utilities in."
Dianne Sherwood, executive director of the Port of Klickitat, said the project sounded great -- provided the claims the proponents made are true.
"If everything the company says works out, then I think it might be a good fit for Dallesport," Sherwood said. "It's supposed to be a zero-discharge plant. The cows would be brought in with `just-in-time' shipping. There would be no cows out in a lot. They would not be on-site more than four hours."
Sherwood added that some of the concerns are not justified.
"A lot of the opposition had to do with preconceived notions. They hear `slaughterhouse,' and think there would be lots of waste, stinking cows, feed lots. That's not what this is," Sherwood said. "It would be state of the art and high tech. Everything is completely filtered. If everything they say comes to pass, there would be zero discharge, and I don't see any downside."
Sherwood pointed out that if the Port should decide to sell the property to Western Meat Processors, there would be a public meeting and a lengthy period of public input. The Port could either sell the property or lease it to the company if the deal proceeds.
"I'm excited about it. As long as they address the concerns of Dallesport residents, this would be really good for our county," she explained. "Agriculture is really important and would help farmers and the overall goals of the county while still retaining the rural character."
Sherwood said she believes the company is on the right track.
"They're trying to be a good corporate citizens and neighbors," she said. "They really care what the community thinks and will do their best to address the concerns."