Jen Peak has watched a community mobilize for a common cause in the span of a week.
She was in downtown Tonganoxie on Sept. 5 when Gov. Sam Brownback and officials from Tyson Foods Inc. announced plans for a massive $320 million chicken-processing plant on two properties along Leavenworth County Road 1 south of Tonganoxie.
With opposition signs in tow, Peak and other members of Citizens Against Project Sunset were at the announcement.
The grass-roots movement has existed for just more than a week.
It has a Facebook group with more than 4,200 members as of Tuesday. Its Facebook page has some 1,400 likes.
The group held an organizational meeting Saturday at Chieftain Park in Tonganoxie.
Peak said it was thought the rally attracted about 1,000 people. Laptops were set up to collect information from folks interested in the CAPS movement. She said the group now has about 600 people in the database after Saturday.
“It was a tremendous turnout,” she said.
Interest continues to grow, as “No Tyson In Tongie” signs are a popular item.
“We sold 600 signs in 30 minutes,” Peak said. “We have hundreds of people asking ‘where do I get more signs?’”
Another 600 are spoken for and more will be on their way, she said.
Organizers have urged local residents to reach out to friends throughout northeast Kansas, as they say the plant’s effects will be far-reaching. The proposed plant is about 10 miles from Lawrence and roughly that distance from Eudora.
During the weekend, a Eudora Against Tyson Facebook page was created.
Tyson announced an estimated work force of 1,600 employees. Local residents have voiced concerns about Tonganoxie handling that influx regarding infrastructure and the school system, even if only a portion of the workforce ends up moving to Tonganoxie. The community currently has a population of about 5,500 people.
Opponents also are worried that their property values are going to sink. Water- and air-quality concerns have been at the top of the list, along with employee conditions, as many opponents cite lawsuits and fines against Tyson.
Last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Tyson Foods more than $263,000 for 15 “serious” and two “repeated” workplace safety violations. That was at the company’s chicken-processing facility in Center, Texas.
In 2013, Tyson agreed to pay a $3.95 million civil penalty to settle alleged violations of Clean Air Act regulations covering prevention of chemical accidents at facilities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
A nationally known activist with Lawrence ties also has joined the conversation.
Erin Brockovich — who grew up in Lawrence and became an environmental activist with a movie made about her — took to Facebook on Sept. 7 to put her support behind the CAPS cause. In her post, she said she received many messages from Tonganoxie people concerned about the proposed plant. Her post listed various pollution concerns about Tyson.
She also wrote about hearing concerns about the plant being close to Tonganoxie playgrounds, which isn't entirely accurate. “Mothers have sent me photographs of their local baseball field … just blocks from the location of the proposed slaughter house.”
Tonganoxie has baseball fields at the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds, but they are a few miles away from the proposed sites near County Road 1, which connects U.S. Highway 24-40 to Interstate 70.
The Sierra Club and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project have pledged assistance to the cause, Peak said.
Area residents concerned about the proposed plant packed Tonganoxie City Council and Leavenworth County Commission meetings last week.
On Friday, state Reps. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs and Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, along with Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, will be at Chieftain Park to field questions from CAPS members. The meeting is slated for 6:30 p.m.
At this past Saturday’s gathering in Chieftain Park, Jarret Pruitt spoke to the crowd, encouraging them to be civil and respectful through the process.
He said that some local politicians, business owners and property owners reported feeling unsafe based on actions of some who oppose the project.
Pruitt stressed that CAPS be a peaceful movement.
“We are not bullies,” he said. “We are Tonganoxie.”
The project still must win several key votes from the Leavenworth County Commission before it can proceed, including a vote on a requested tax abatement and a vote to rezone the property for industrial use.