In reading today’s Chicago “Tribune,” a turn to pages 6 and 7 revealed a two-page story about the Triumph hog plant in East Moline, the town in which I reside most of the time and the school system which my children attended.

The Triumph hog plant has been hanging fire for 5 years or so. Current Mayor John Thodos said, “This project is already four or five years old, so if anyone has patience, I do.” Thodos came in as Mayor, displacing Jose “Joe” Moreno in a race that saw many discrepancies at a ward level and, I have no doubt, would have shown even more discrepancies had the recount been done city-wide. As the 1st Ward candidate who paid for a recount and has written about the really astonishing irregularities that occurred in just one small ward (i.e., voters who did not exist…but whose addresses were the residences of employees of then-Democratic County Chairman John Gianulis; 3 people in a booth at once; dying people signing absentee ballots that they knew nothing about; actual miscounting of the absentee ballots, proven during a paid-for recount), it has been with some interest that I have watched the progress (or lack thereof) in the city of East Moline since that election.

Most, if not all, of the plans that Mayor Moreno had laid out for the city, which included a downtown Farmers’ Market area among others and a “Revitalize East Moline” committee of leaders in the area, but did not include a giant hog plant that would slaughter 16,000 hogs a day, were buried when Mayor Thodos’ ascended to the throne.   Mayor Thodos recently tried to run (unsuccessfully) for a different county-wide office, so it is clear that he viewed the Mayor’s office only as a stepping-stone in his political career.

Under Mayor Thodos, East Moline has been left “out of the loop,” the Loop being the all-Quad City bus loop. The downtown has continued to deteriorate and businesses have continued to flee. Representative Phil Hare (D, IL) says that “There is 25% unemployment in the building trades right now, and this (Triumph plant) would put at least 600 people to work on construction.  We shouldn’t summarily thumb our nose at these jobs because of something that potentially might happen.  We can act out of fear again or we can act out of trying to improve our economy.” Those of us reading about the impending hog plant might also add, “or we can act intelligently, but in the best long-term interests of the community.”

This last sentiment regarding remediating any odor or groundwater problems the plant creates seems valid and admirable, but there are many who are less enthused…like those who live in East Moline near the plant or those who know the ins-and-outs of giant hog confinement plants, which are growing in number and size. It’s a bit like the BP Gulf Disaster. Wouldn’t an ounce of prevention have been worth a pound of the not-that-successful cure we’ve seen for the past many months?

 In 1980, U.S. hog and farm operations, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, numbered 666,550. As of 2009, there were only 71,450 as small family farmers were gobbled up by large hog confinement operations.  There were 30,000 Illinois hog and pig farming operations in 1980, but the numbers declined with each passing decade, to approximately half that number in 1990 (15,300) to 5,100 in 2000 to only 2,900 in 2007. A drop from 30,000 operations to less than 3,000 in under 30 years is not only astounding, it is over a 90% drop in the old-fashioned family farm(s) of my youth.

Representative Phil Hare, aware of the opposition of some in the community who do not want the hog plant in their back yard, did say, “I would not support the facility for a minute if I thought we were going to have environmental problems.  Triumph is not getting a pass here.  Should any environmental degradation occur, immediate remediation would be necessary.” This sounds admirable, but the fact is that, if a gigantic hog processing plant is placed close to East Moline, factory hog  farms of the same scale cannot be far behind. This is proven by the statistics of our own U.S. Department of Agriculture, just cited. The number of hogs or pigs, per farm, in thousands, has been consistently rising, moving up from fewer than 500 hogs per facility to numbers of 2,000 or more in the years since 1992.

There are knowledgeable opponents, like Jerry Neff, chairman of the local Sierra Club, who say, “It’s a huge plant being built on a wetland and a flood plain that could end up flooding nearby homes.” Max Muller of the Environment Illinois non-profit advocacy group says, “The facility will increase demand for food animals that will probably be met by factory farms in Illinois.  We already have all sorts of environmental problems from factory farms, including manure spills into waterways and odor issues.  Until we clean up regulation of factory farm pollution, we don’t want to be furthering demand for the products from them.”

Triumph is a Missouri-based processor which pays approximately $12.10 an hour, which amounts to approximately $25,100 a year in annual salary, according to spokesman Pat Lilly, who says that construction on the hotly-debated plant could start this spring.

81% of all U.S. hogs are raised in facilities that house 2000+ animals. The toll to small operators and the small family farm has been catastrophic.  To further demonstrate that the plant and the animals (and the problems?) are coming, Triumph officials, who did not agree to be interviewed for the  “Tribune” story, confirmed that they already have contracts with suppliers for hogs to be raised in confinement facilities and raised specifically to be slaughtered at the controversial East Moline plant.

This particular Triumph plant would slaughter 16,000 hogs a day, but taxpayers in the area were asked for millions in local tax breaks. The tax breaks required unanimous approval by 5 local city councils and there was one hold-out back in 2005. Just months later, now-disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich resuscitated the project with an economic package worth $16 million (while defaulting on a promise to the Silvis Schools to provide $11.4 million for a new school.)

By 2007, Triumph had purchased 116 acres of land in East Moline on which to build. East Moline applied for a $4.8 million economic development grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, for water and sewer construction on the site. The company is still eligible for the state’s $16 million package, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, but the department would neither confirm nor deny whether it was discussing this funding with the company, and Triumph Foods was not talking.

Foes of the Triumph meat processing plant’s location in East Moline of the Illinois Quad Cities include Art Norris, who is a former hog farmer. He described the treatment of animals raised in such facilities as “inhumane” and said the staggering amount of feces created by hogs and the number of plants already discharging into the Rock River are signs that the plant will do the damage that Representative Hare says the city of East Moline would then have to take steps to remediate. No “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” thinking here; just “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Norris continues, “Triumph has already said that a lot of this meat will be going to Japan, so they get the meat and we get the waste the plant leaves behind.” It should be noted that Norris has been dubbed the Quad Cities’ Waterkeeper by a national advocacy group aimed at protecting waterways from pollution.

The fact is that large plants like the one proposed for East Moline by Triumph attract undocumented workers who are more vulnerable to unfair labor practices. These undocumented workers strain social services, including medical and educational facilities. The poorest city in the state of Iowa (Columbus Junction) is one where a huge meat processing plant is located, quite near Iowa City, and the University has found it necessary to take a mobile bus approach to providing any kind of medical services to the poor workers who staff the plant and have no medical benefits for themselves or their children. I attended a meeting about diagnosing ADD and ADHD in such children of workers, as well as providing pap smears and other routine health care to the impoverished workers, who often do not speak English as their native language.

Even more stunning than the indifference to those in the community who have pointed to hog confinement plants, with their large lagoons of manure, as unattractive and dangerous to the ground water of the area is the feeling that, as Bill Wundram phrases it, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” Yes, somebody is here and cares, but there seems to be little interest in listening to those who are not quite as convinced that “a job is a job is a job” is the right philosophy. With 25% unemployment in the building trades, 600 people needed to build such a behemoth of a plant, and jobs for workers available thereafter (albeit jobs without benefits that attract only hourly workers and yield a very low annual salary), is the benefit to the community worth the cost? Do those who live near the plant want the odor and constant traffic of incoming animals on trucks? What do you think?

For opponents of the plant, there are only 2 bright spots: 1) Triumph has not yet applied for the permits it needs from the Illinois EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and that could take months if not years to process, and (2) On the horizon is a new concept, designed to save the family farmer. This new concept involves a traveling mobile slaughter unit (cost: $250,000 or more for start-up of each), which is being championed by Kim Snyder of Kankakee.  She says, “If we can get this going, I see it growing very, very quickly.” She markets her own meat via and supplies the Park Grill at Millennium Park in Chicago with its meat.

Adds Snyder, who says the mobile slaughterhouses are safer and travel with an inspector, there are only about 20 mobile slaughter units for poultry and half a dozen for cattle around the country now. But, says Arion Thiboumery of Ames (ISU), “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this.  In large plants, the animals go by real fast.  This is much smaller; so it’s slower and many people say it’s safer.” Steve Skelton of Kentucky State University says, “It’s made a big difference for farmers. They’re making money again.”  Snyder, who is pioneering the idea of the mobile slaughterhouse says, “How cool would it be for a chef or just for anyone to walk out here and choose an animal, then have it slaughtered and pretty much ready to go?”

For those of us who find the concept of slaughtering animals something we only want to know about in the abstract, it’s not that cool, but the idea of bringing consumers closer to control of the food they are consuming is not only healthy but appealing.  Since the mobile slaughter houses process only 5 cows a day, not only safety for the workers but safety for the food would be pluses for the concept.

I remember visiting my hometown of Independence, Iowa when a large hog confinement plant in the fields nearby made the air so redolent that your eyes stung and you had to stay indoors. The more affluent residents of this cottage town for Waterloo/Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids were not amused that their expensive summer homes were almost unusable as a result of the hog stench, and the problem was addressed and no longer exists. Here we are, in East Moline (and the Quad Cities, in general) attempting to go down the same road that others have traveled with horrible results.

As someone who was invited to tour the Triumph plant (full disclosure; the invitation was actually extended to my husband, and I would have gone along, had we been available), I can only imagine how vast a difference exists between a large facillity like Triumph’s proposed plant and a small mobile slaughterhouse option.

I am unconvinced that there won’t be unpleasant side-effects for the Quad City community, including odor, strain on social service agencies and schools, an uptick in violent crime, and a generally undesirable reputation that will adhere to the town, just as the presence of the mental health facility did for years. (And I grew up in a town with a mental health institute, one of 4 in the state of Iowa, so I know how “reputation” of  a town hangs on for years.)

I’m also a realist and aware that “money talks and bullshit walks.” Americans, over a lifetime, consume 21,000 animals and, while houses and cars cost fourteen times what they did 50 years ago, the price of chicken hasn’t even doubled, thanks to the efficiency (if not the humanity) of factory poultry farms. We eat 150 times as many chickens a year as we did 80 years ago. (All  poultry facts courtesy of “Life” by Joel Stein in the August 23, 2010 issue of “Time” magazine on pp. 51-52.)

Still, I think some investigation into the intentions of Triumph should be made now, before those EPA permits are applied for and those of us in the Quad Cities, especially East Moline, Illinois, are all awash in sewage sludge.