Fire Consumes Poultry Research Building in Northampton

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By Linda Cicoira-  A blaze battled by about 55 volunteer firefighters from nine Eastern Shore companies Monday at an Eastville area research facility dispelled the notion that Northampton County is void of the poultry industry.

One chicken house on the site just off Cherrydale Drive was destroyed in the blaze. Five remain. About 1,100 chickens were killed. Three firefighters, who were not identified, suffered heat exhaustion and were treated at the scene.

The incident happened at the end of Perdue Lane where a large sign warns that trespassers will be prosecuted for entering the fenced area. Through trees from another view, a barbed wire topped chain-link fence secures the facility.

Eastern Shore of Virginia 9-1-1 Communications Center was notified of the fire at about 9:30 a.m. The chicken houses were in a row to the left of the entrance road and were mostly hidden behind woods.

The facility is owned by Cobb-Vantress, a subsidiary of Tyson Foods. Both Perdue Farms and Tyson have plants in Accomack. Those companies have been criticized recently for using high amounts of water for the multitude of huge houses recently constructed in Accomack.

Scott Kudias of the Office of Water Supply, a division of DEQ, wrote in answer to a local resident’s query, “The facility located in Northampton County is Eastville Farms … This is a breeder farm currently owned and operated by Cobb-Vantress. Breeder farms have lower water use generally due to a lesser stocking density in each house and based on the information we have on this facility it does not appear to require a groundwater withdrawal permit.

Deputy Chief/Secretary David Eder of the Eastville Volunteer Fire Company said fighting the fire required “in excess of 45,000 gallons of water” and it took about 50 minutes to get the fire under control.

“I believe it to be electrical in nature,” Eder said. “But I really don’t have any answers yet. A piece of equipment, I believe a fan,” was the probable cause. “It simply spread from there … We were able to keep it (the fire) at the actual structure,” Eder continued. “It was nip and tuck there for a while.”

He estimated the chicken house to be 80 feet by 380 feet.

“I don’t know how many chickens they have on-site at any given time,” the deputy chief said. “The only danger that we had today was the heat. No chemicals (were reported being on the site). Nothing at all that would cause any other problems. Smoke too,” he added.

The exhausted firefighters were “rehabbed,” Eder said. “We got them cooled down and assigned them to other jobs” at the scene. Firefighters from Eastville, Cape Charles, Cheriton, Northampton, Exmore, Painter, Wachapreague, Melfa, and Onancock units responded to the call. In addition, Northampton EMS and Eastville police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers came to help because smoke had created a fog across Cherrydale Drive. Ray Newman Farms and Dilly Construction, both of Northampton, brought equipment in that removed the metal roof to allow fire underneath to be extinguished. Firefighters were at the site for about 6.5 hours, Eder said.

Stacy Vaughn, a spokesperson for Cobb-Vantress, said research and development for chickens are done at the site. “We do broiler/breeder genetics,” Vaughn said. “We’re a development company, not a hatchery.

“We are fortunate Monday’s fire at our pedigree breeding farm … was contained to a single chicken house,” said Vaughn. “Thank you to the firefighters who responded and extinguished the fire successfully. We are grateful the three firefighters who suffered heat exhaustion have recovered and are doing well, and that no team members were injured.

“Our farm near Eastville is one of the few facilities in the world where pedigree chickens are chosen and bred to become the breeding stock for the world’s poultry production,” she continued in a prepared statement. “Using natural selection, we cross-breed different pedigree bird families whose eggs create the great grandparent and grandparent generations that later supply day-old chicks to the poultry industry. Each of our pedigree farms operates under strict biosecurity guidelines to protect our chickens from diseases and bacteria that could be harmful to them. Operations continue at the farm and we do not expect any disruption to our business.

“Cobb-Vantress Inc. makes quality protein accessible, healthy and affordable worldwide. Our research and technology innovates the global poultry industry … we are the world’s oldest pedigree broiler.”

The chicken house that was destroyed was “built in the late 1990s,” she continued. “It will be a total loss.” She did not have a “dollar wise” estimate for damages.

“Obviously, we’re very grateful to the fire crews that responded,” noted Vaughn, who called from Arkansas.

Todd Baker identified himself at the site as being the facility’s complex manager. “We try not to get a lot of attention,” he said after asking a reporter to stay behind the fence despite that firefighters were going in and out of the “restricted bio-secure area.” He wanted no cameras inside and was very guarded about what is done there. He had “Cobb” embroidered on his shirt but said, “I actually work for Perdue.”

Vaughn said both Tyson and Perdue are customers of the company.

When one firefighter heard that it was a research company, he kidded that they (the firefighters) would soon all be growing “beaks and breasts.” Another firefighter said, “Everybody we talked to down there had a different twist” of what work was done there. “I was glad to get done with it. I don’t really know a 100 percent what they do there.” However, he added, the chickens are “trucked out to a location or destroyed after they (the workers) do tests.”

Court records show the facility was sold by Perdue Foods LLC to Cobb-Heritage LLC in 2014 for $2,450,283. It was assessed in 2017 at $1,498,900. At 83 cents per $100 valuation, the company pays $12,441 in real estate taxes per year to Northampton.

A Northampton courthouse once stood on the property.

According to Northampton’s zoning ordinance, the “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that concentrated animal husbandry may have the potential to contribute pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics, and ammonia to the environment. Excess nutrients in water can result in or contribute to low levels of dissolved oxygen, eutrophication, and toxic algal blooms. These excess nutrients can pose a direct threat to Northampton County’s established aquaculture industry and must be managed responsibly.”

The guidelines in Northampton are much stricter than they are in Accomack with Northampton requiring a special use permit and large setbacks in the few areas where an application for a poultry facility can be made.

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