Is the Proposed Great Falls Cheese Plant a Slaughterhouse in Disguise?

After almost a year without hearing a word about the controversial Madison Food Park Slaughterhouse outside Great Falls, there’s news…

A Special Use Permit in Cascade County was filed by Big Sky Cheese, LLC and Madison Food Park, LLC on April 25, 2019 for a cheese manufacturing plant, not a slaughterhouse, with a modest footprint compared to the previously proposed mega slaughter facility.

So, what do we know?

According to the Cascade Co Planning Department the Big Sky Cheese SUP application is in the review phase with Planning.  The office use criteria review has been completed and the application was deemed sufficient.  This review checklist functions like an elemental review to ensure that responses to all required questions have been provided in the application.  Once an SUP is ‘complete’ at this stage with all items for review provided, staff evaluates each response.  This is where the application is currently.

Notices to adjoining property owners are sent after a hearing has been scheduled and public notice has been provided to the Tribune.  Standard noticing practice for SUP’s is to send notice to adjoining properties.  Timeline-wise, interested agencies have been notified and responses are awaited, the submission is being reviewed, and mid-June is anticipated to be the earliest the Board could hear it.

Ok, what’s actually been proposed and what’s it mean?

  • First – the SUP application is in fact for a cheese making facility, not a slaughterhouse. This is important in that the permits and authorizations necessary to undertaking such a facility will not guarantee a future expansion or conversion, although such a future conversion or expansion is within the realm of possibility.
  • Second – cheese making facilities can create serious water pollution problems. Simply put, the wastewater created from cheese production is not your garden variety, high-quality water capable of easy “beneficial re-use” as farm irrigation. Rather, cheese production wastewater is very high in several pollutants of concern including but not limited to a high Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) (what often causes fish kills in surface water discharges), high Total Suspended Solids (TSS) (murky wastewater that inhibits photosynthesis and smothers small creek aquatic life), and often acidic pH, not to mention the other pollutants like harmful levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and chlorides.
  • Third – more specifically, there is a lot of ambiguity about what type of wastewater treatment the alleged cheese making facility will install. There is lip service given to the requirement of obtaining a permit from DEQ to discharge wastewater, and oblique references are made to being “environmentally friendly” because the facility intends to land apply wastewater “beneficially” – however, these statements, without clarification or details on actual treatment levels and techniques, doesn’t cut it. Land application of poorly treated wastewater has the ability to soak into soils and groundwater, and can travel into local wells and transfer to downstream local hydrologically connected streams creating potentially significant pollution and human health threats.
  • Fourth – the facility will consumptively withdraw about 9,000 gallons per day from the Madison Aquifer, discharge about 13,000 gallons per day as wastewater, plus have another 9,700 gallons per day of wastewater in the form of whey. The whey is allegedly going to be used by local “farmers” beneficially, no details there however. Playing devils advocate there could be > 20,000 gallons per day of pollutant heavy wastewater. Where this stuff ends up is pretty darn important in the context of water quality and local stream health.
  • Fifth – remember, geography is destiny. The rolling hills and coulees SE of Great Falls are unique, not the least for their geomorphology. These landscapes don’t have much perennial surface water (creeks flowing year round), but do have a lot of intermittent and ephemeral waters (following after precipitation only), and lots of groundwater that is highly transmissive through cobblestone/grainy soils. Indeed, much of the bottomland is old alluvial floodplains with high connectivity groundwater-surface water. This is all important because, from a water resources perspective, even this new, and admittedly smaller proposal, can have locally significant pollution impacts if not responsibly handled.
Other twists in this issue include the local  land-use angle:
Cascade County is discussing an overhaul to its zoning regulations generally, including substantive changes to how “agricultural” land use is defined. These types of nitty-gritty details are important in that how particular land uses are defined directly influences what type of operations and activities are allowed in different parts of a given jurisdiction.
For instance, would you want an industrial refinery allowed next to a family suburb and elementary school? Of course not, and for this and like reasons zoning codes are meant to reflect a prioritized and thoughtful system that protects public health, safety and welfare.
Coming full-circle, presently a slaughterhouse and a dairy facility require special use permits. If zoning code is changed to broaden the definition of acceptable uses for agricultural, there could be a distinct as-applied to change to where an otherwise “industrial” use could occur in an “agricultural” setting.
An initial public hearing on the proposed cheese plant is scheduled for the Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment, meeting on Thursday June 27th at 5 p.m. in the Family Living Center at Montana ExpoPark, 400 3rd St. N.W. 
  • The proposal is located at 8346 US Highway 89, Great Falls. The parcel number is 0005348300 and Geocode is 02-3017-34-4-02-01-0000. The parcel is located in Section 34 Township 20 N Range 5 E, P.M.M., Cascade County, MT.
  • Citizens may speak for or against the proposal at the public hearing or submit comments in writing to the Cascade County Planning office, 121 4th St. N, Suite 2 H/I, Great Falls, MT 59401.

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