Neighbors concerned about bacteria in wells after influx of chicken farms

Neighbors concerned about bacteria in wells after influx of chicken farms (KTUL)

DELAWARE COUNTY, Okla. (KTUL) -- Nick Smith loves calling Delaware County home. The tall trees, the crystal clear streams, the open pastures -- it’s a life he wants to pass down to his kids.

“More or less the country life. Kids can kind of roam and do what they want,” said Smith. “There’s not a lot of crime activity or nothing around here.”

But Smith worries that one thing can spoil the life he loves here -- chicken houses.

“There’s multiple farms per square mile, instead of a farm every five to ten miles,” said Smith.

Since January 2017, Delaware County has become home to 156 new chicken houses with 6.6 million birds. There is now a total 704 chicken houses in the county, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

When the Smith’s neighbor put the land next to them up for sale two years ago, Nick and his wife, Katie, knew what might be moving in.

“When did you buy this property over here?” asked Channel 8.

“About two years ago, we bought it to keep anyone, or chicken houses, to keep [them] from moving in next to us,” said Nick.

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But that small buffer of land hasn’t kept poultry operations from expanding nearby. Since 2017, 18 new chicken houses have gone up within about two miles of Nick’s home. Now, they’re wondering if runoff from those big poultry operations was the thing that made their son, Cooper, sick.

“At first, we were thinking it was just a stomach bug,” said Nick. “I had it; he had it. [I] didn’t think a whole lot of it, then he had blood in his stool.”

When his hands, feet and lips started to swell, the Smith’s looked everywhere for something that might have caused Cooper's illness, including their well. They’d been drinking from it for seven years. The water once tested high for iron, but that was it. After Cooper got sick, they tested their well again, and that’s when they found E. coli in the water.

“I can’t say that it’s guaranteed that the chicken farms caused that, I don’t know that,” said Nick. “We’ve had livestock around here and never had an issue until now.”

Rural wells often test positive for different types of bacteria, including E. coli. The Smith’s admit there’s no proof that the chicken houses polluted their well. Plus, they do have their own livestock -- a couple of chickens, cows and horses -- but in seven years, they’ve never had a problem until Cooper got sick.

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Water experts said E. coli is common in this part of Delaware County because how close the aquifer is to the surface. When it rains too much or if there’s a crack in the seal of a well, E. coli can find a way in, but Nick wonders, why now? What’s changed?

“They’ve got a business. Everybody loves chicken, but you hate to see that many houses in one small area; it can’t be good for the water,” said Nick.

So far, Nick is the only person he knows with E. coli in his well. Though they’ve disinfected it, he won’t let his family drink from the water anymore.

“We don’t drink the well water,” said Nick. “We buy water now. We’re just scared of going through that again, don’t want to risk it.”

It was a risk they didn’t think they’d have to face out in the country.

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