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updated 7:10 PM UTC, Dec 16, 2018

Meat processing plant raises questions, concerns

By Chris Edwards
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WOODVILLE – A wave of concerns, rumors and questions have wafted through conversation and social media postings lately pertaining to a proposed meat processing and packing plant set to open in Tyler County.

The location of the facility will be within the Tyler County Industrial Park area north of Woodville off of U.S. Highway 69 on a site of nearly 40 acres. In a statement prepared by Greg Gray, representing the firm in charge of the operation, East Texas Packing, LLC, the group's CEO Danny Stanley said he is excited for the opportunity it will offer the area.

"I know firsthand how badly jobs are needed in this community," Stanley said in the statement. "A lot of money has been invested into the newest equipment and processing methods to make this a clean, well-run operation that benefits the community with much needed well-paying jobs."

According to the statement, East Texas Packing is ready to accept local bids for construction and expects to begin production in the fall "with an initial start of approximately 65-100 employees, all to be hired locally." The statement goes on to claim that in the next few years, the plant will require more than 200 employees.

The statement also details the minimal impact to the environment that the facility will have as well as compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "[The facility] boasts of using new technology to process its waste to a quality which is able to be legally accepted by local waste management services," the statement reads.

Along with automated, "top of the line" equipment, the facility will be outfitted with an advanced odor-neutralizing carbon filtration system, which will "significantly reduce the odor and waste traditionally associated with meat processing plants."

Gil Tubb, president of Tyler County Industrial Corporation, said he felt early on that the facility "was going to be a good thing."

Tubb said his group was approached several months ago by Gray, who laid out the plans East Texas Packing had for building a plant in Tyler County. Initially, Tubb said, the company looked at land south of Woodville, but could not get sewer and water service at the location in a reasonable manner.

In their first meeting, Tubb said that Gray informed him the company was funded by Muhammad Shahid Javed. Javed and the group were assisted in acquiring the land for the location by Woodville attorney Lindsey Whisenhant, according to Tyler County Judge Jacques Blanchette. Records show that the warranty deed for the land was signed in by Whisenhant and Javed under a joint partnership, LW & MJ Enterprises, LLC.

When Gray gave the plant pitch to Tubb and the Industrial Corp., he informed them that the facility would be one of the most sophisticated and clean operations of its kind in the country and that buildings and equipment had already been purchased. Tyler County Industrial Corp. showed Gray the tract of land between Doucette and Woodville, which Tubb's group owned. East Texas Packing bought the land, and Tubb said the company is preparing to move its buildings and equipment to the land within the month.

Woodville City Administrator Mandi Risinger said that prior to the group selecting the land for its site, they approached the city. "Once it'd been established what their anticipated volumes and demands could be, we determined we could provide services if they were in our service area," Risinger said.

A memorandum of understanding between the City of Woodville and East Texas Packing was accepted during a special meeting of the City Council on Feb. 6. The minutes for the meeting show that it was decided in executive session and unanimously approved once the meeting reconvened into open session. Risinger said a representative from East Texas Packing notified the city in April that a site had been selected and requested the preparation of a service agreement.

A group calling itself The Concerned Citizens of Tyler County Committee has articulated several of its concerns, chief of which have to do with the potential environmental impact.

One member of this group, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, also cited a lack of transparency in the development of the facility; stating that the company should engage with the public to gain its trust and understanding in the community. The citizen also inquired whether any agencies in charge of environmental oversight have been contacted regarding permits.

A search of records on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows that East Texas Packing applied for a wastewater permit on Dec.12, 2017, but the permit request was since withdrawn. Records also show that a wastewater permit through the federal Environmental Protection Agency was also withdrawn.

In the company's news release, it states that all wastewater will be treated on site, "so there will be no runoff or use of local waterways. All EPS and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality standards must be met or exceeded, or the facility would not be allowed to continue to operate." The news release goes on to state that the plant will also operate under the supervision of the USDA, which requires a certified inspector to be on site during all times of operation.

The member of The Concerned Citizens group who spoke to the Booster said that a public forum to address concerns and answer questions is necessary. Blanchette said his office has fielded a large volume of calls on the matter but given the county's lack of zoning or ordinance laws, has no authority to regulate or permit what East Texas Packing does.

"The citizens' voice is the most powerful voice of opposition available now," Blanchette said.

"From a governance standpoint, we will look at the possibility of passing a resolution as to whether or not we support it," he said.

The member of the Concerned Citizens group also cited unsuccessful, similar start-ups in other nearby counties, including one in Port Arthur proposed by The Riceland Farms group, which is owned by the Javed family. The reasons for those failures, according to Tubb, owe more to another type of fear besides environmental concern.

The fear Tubb referenced, that of an Islamic bias in hiring as well as a rumor that the plant would be a Halal-style operation, has emerged as a concern on social media postings. Woodville business owner Scot Tolbert wrote in a heavily shared post that in his findings the plant would be "a Muslim operation in accordance with Muslim law," in addition to addressing the ecological concerns.

Stanley said East Texas Packing "is a private secular company unaffiliated with any religious practice." Stanley also noted that as an Equal Opportunity Employer, East Texas Packing does not discriminate under any of the tenets set forth by federal hiring laws.

According to Stanley, who said he has lived in Tyler County for most of his life, the company is "committed to hiring local applicants". Stanley encouraged any potential employees to contact the company and send in resumes.

"We vetted this one stronger than normally," Tubb said, due to awareness of the controversies in other counties. According to Tubb, a longtime civic leader who was instrumental in getting several major employers to locate in Tyler County, the blowback is nothing new to him. "The Tyler County Industrial Corporation was basically formed to try to bring business here," he said. He referenced the controversy surrounding the construction of the Gib Lewis Unit state prison in 1990, which became one of the county's largest employers. "If the people would look past the silliness of all this, they would see how ridiculous it all is," he said. "It's been treated in social media that there was a group of us hiding behind [a] table and we were figuring out how to do this so no one would know. It was quite the opposite of that. It was a strictly business deal...like any other business deal."

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Woodville) stated that he is "strongly opposed" in a statement issued last weekend through his Facebook page. Babin cited the environmental repercussions as his reason for not supporting the facility. Calls to Babin's office for a more detailed explanation for the stance were not returned as of press time.

State Rep. James White (R-Hillister) said that he is committed to using "every statute, regulation and agency" in his capacity to insure a safe, ecologically sound Tyler County.

White said that in making sure any businesses coming to Tyler County are statutorily and constitutionally sound, they should be hiring local people, minimizing any impact to the environment as well as fulfilling their tax obligations. White said he had not been notified of any permit applications from East Texas Packing and said he did not know if a permit is required yet. He said that if a permit is required from TCEQ, there will likely be a public hearing and a decision made.

"It's not for me to say I like this business or that business," White said. "If it's statutory and regulatorily sound, I believe the role of government is limited."

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