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Proposed Great Falls Slaughterhouse Draws Praise, Concern

MFP project Architectural & Engineering Firm EPSTEIN Global, Inc.
Friesen Food's Madison Food Park would process cows, chickens and pigs. It would be the largest slaughterhouse-type facility ever built in the state.

The Alberta-based livestock company Friesen Foods is proposing a 3,000 acre slaughterhouse and food processing facility outside of Great Falls.

“This would be a huge benefit to the cattle industry in Montana,” Kellom said.

Andy Kellom is a rancher who manages a 15,000-head feedlot near Lewistown, and a member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

“We spend millions of dollars every year transporting our cattle out of Montana to be finished and harvested in facilities in other states,” he said.

Plans for the Madison Food Park do not include a feedlot for finishing animals. It is more of a last stop where livestock hit the processing floor.

But not everyone in the area is on board with the massive project.

Stacy Hermiller’s house is right next door to the proposed slaughterhouse site. On a cold night recently, she and four neighbors are drinking hot tea around her kitchen table, venting their frustrations.

“Having this in my backyard ruins everything about why we moved out here in the first place,” Hermiller said.

Hermiller got a certified letter in October from Friesen Foods, outlining the company’s proposal.

Its initial application for a Cascade County special use permit says Friesen will use 3.5 million gallons of water per day - roughly equivalent to the city of Butte’s daily consumption. It also says the plant will generate more than 100,000 lbs of liquid and solid waste per day from processing of livestock and related commodities. Much will be treated and stored in 70-acre anaerobic lagoons - enough to cover 50 football fields.

Members of Great Falls Area Concerned Citizens discuss the proposed Madison Food Park at Stacy Hermiller's home. Hermiller's property boarders the potential site.

For Hermiller, who works as a physician’s assistant at Benefis Health System, the environmental and health risks posed by these lagoons are significant.

“I’ve had real concerns about the spread of gasses in the air as well as pathogens from the anaerobic lagoons. I know that they emit ammonia, hydrogen sulfide is very toxic gas. Methane, there’s going to be a lot of it produced here and it’s fatal at high levels if it’s not handled properly," she said. 

Friesen’s application touts a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly design that incorporates wind, solar and methane capture technology to help power the plant. It also emphasizes a commitment to minimizing any impact to the surrounding community.

But Hermiller and others are skeptical. They say they want more concrete information from Friesen on how they plan to deal with the plant’s waste and protect nearby property owners.

Todd Hanson is a spokesman for the project.

“Until such time as the considerable number of federal, state and local regulatory agencies have had an opportunity to review and request appropriate revisions, we have no intention of prematurely releasing what is typically highly technical information which could easily be misinterpreted or misconstrued by the lay public,” he said.

Hanson thinks that opponents at this early stage should consider the long process ahead.

Beyond their own problems of proximity, neighbors are worried a massive slaughterhouse would do more harm than good to the city of Great Falls.

One potential neighbor of the plant started a Facebook page opposing the project, it has more than 1,000 followers and has spilled over into an organized campaign. Opponents aren’t buying claims that the slaughterhouse will bring good jobs.

Friesen spokesman Todd Hanson says it will.

“All positions within and across the MFP campus work force will be at or above industry standards for similar facilities. At this time we estimate that base wage positions with full benefits will range from $15 to $22 per hour, with skilled, semi-skilled and management salaries starting at $45,000 and going up to $85,000 annually,” he said.

Hanson says Friesen expects these jobs to be sourced locally and statewide. He also says the company is partnering with Montana State University to create workforce training programs.

But Joel Schumacher, an agricultural economist at Montana State University has another concern.

“It’s been about 30 years since Montana has had a larger scale meat processor. I don’t know whether we have the supply of cattle to keep a plant of that scale going,” he said.

Operations at the Madison Food Park will run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at a very high capacity. It would be the biggest slaughterhouse-type facility ever built in the state and the largest in the northwest.

“Without having done a whole feasibility study I don’t how viable a plant is, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I would assume a company in this part of the market for years, I’m guessing they’ve done their homework so they must think there is a pretty fair chance that something like this would succeed,” Schumacher said.

Todd Hanson, the project’s spokesman, says Friesen is confident that Montana has enough animals to supply the facility.

A public hearing originally scheduled for Dec 7th on the proposal has been cancelled.

According to Hanson, Friesen Foods is in the process of reviewing and amending its special use permit application with Cascade County. He expects those changes to be submitted soon.

Beau is a former Morning Edition host and producer and engineer for the MTPR program "Capitol Talk." He worked as a reporter, and hosted Freeforms once a month.
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