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Hickman's Family Farms sued in Federal court

PHOENIX (KSAZ) -- Arizona-based Hickman's Family Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the U.S., is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit, accused of polluting the air with hazardous chemicals and not doing anything about it.

People who live nearby say there's an unbearable stench, and that the stench is making them miserable and sick.

At issue are two of the farm's ranches, located in Tonopah and Arlington in the Far West Valley. Residents and environmental activists argue in Federal court that Hickman's Family Farms is knowingly polluting the area with ammonia, and refusing to take the blame.

They want Hickman's to pay $264 million in penalties.

With more than 4 million hens, Hickman's Family Farms produces a lot of eggs, and a lot of chicken waste, which in turn produces a lot of ammonia.

"The other day I was coming home, the cloud coming off of them was so bad you can smell them for miles off the freeway," said Tonopah resident Carolyn Burton. "To me, it burns my throat. I start coughing, my nose runs, my eyes water."

Environmentalists filed a lawsuit, claiming Hickman's violated Federal laws by not reporting the potentially dangerous levels of ammonia to surrounding residents and emergency agencies.

"It seems like a rather cavalier attitude these people have, like, we're sorry about your problem, but were making all this money," said Stephen Brittle with Don't Waste Arizona. "But we have environmental laws to protect people from those kind of people."

Vice President of Operations Billy Hickman took the stand in his family's defense, blaming the stench on nearby dairy farms. While he acknowledged the egg ranch does produce around 1,000 lbs of ammonia on a daily basis, Hickman said he did not know if their ammonia was polluting the air. When asked where the farm's ammonia goes, Hickman replied, "I don't know", saying their monitoring system has not picked up high levels of ammonia.

"Their ammonia -- even though the stench goes for miles, their ammonia stays magically at the fence line," said Brittle. "What planet are they from?"

The plaintiffs want the farm to pay a $264 million fine, but Judge Murray Snow acknowledged a penalty that big would put the farm out of business, and said if he did impose a penalty, it would not be anywhere near that amount. Residents and environmentalists also want the judge to order Hickman's to properly monitor and report ammonia levels on a regular basis.