Tonopah resident Dan Mack, left, is interviewed for “Right to Harm” by directors Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher. (Photo courtesy Right to Harm)

Tonopah residents and activists who have been fighting against nearby Hickman’s Family Farms operations for around half a decade just got a national boost via the documentary “Right to Harm.”

Residents allege adverse health and other issues as a direct result of Hickman’s presence in their community. One of the film’s focal points, Sonia Lopez, reported her son’s health improved when they moved 26 miles away from Hickman’s.

The film, which was recently screened by ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, covers five stories in eight states and a host of residents who live near concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). The lengthy Hickman’s situation, which spans Tonopah and Arlington, is one portion of the film.

In the documentary some residents living close to CAFOs across the nation claim they have developed rashes and, potentially, cancer. Water pollutants and odors have been reported, along with decreased property values. As a result, homes can be difficult to sell. 

According to the documentary’s website, CAFOs release more than 160 toxins, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Ammonia exposure can cause watery eyes, scratchy throat, coughing and tightness in the chest.

Additionally, the website reports CAFOs can generate as much feces and urine as a small city. And when raw animal waste is used as fertilizer, groundwater can be contaminated with nitrates, E. coli, rotavirus and campylobacter. Fans can also blow contaminants into the air.

“As a filmmaker, I will say that any documentary film is made by a filmmaker or by an artist, so it does have a point of view. I’m certainly willing to admit that,” said co-director and cinematographer Matt Wechsler during a Q&A after the screening at Tempe’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

“The point of this film is to show people in America that it’s not right to produce food in a way that is inequitable for some of our citizens of our country.”

No on-camera interviews were conducted with representatives for Hickman’s, and none were present at the Q&A, but a comment accompanied the screener. Representatives said they had not been given access to see the film before commenting. The following is an excerpt:

“Each resident of Tonopah depicted in this film has sued us for monetary damages based strictly on whether or not we are harming the environment. They can only be awarded the hundreds of thousands of dollars they claim if they can convince a jury our presence inhibits their ability to enjoy life. They, therefore, have a monetary incentive to portray us in an unfair light.

“Every governmental organization who has monitored the air around our farm has found us to be in compliance with their regulations. We built an agricultural operation in an agriculturally zoned area, an area that has been home to dairies and farm fields fertilized by the manure from those dairies as well as processed human manure.”

As of print, representatives for Hickman’s have not returned the West Valley View’s request for comment.

Dan Mack, a Tonopah resident as well as chairman of local activist group Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant (STOPP), disputed the latter, however. He and others argue there isn’t proper regulation and Hickman’s gets preferential treatment in the way of exemptions due to zoning.

In the film, Mack said residents weren’t given a say on whether Hickman’s should build in the community. Attorney Danielle Diamond echoed this sentiment during the Q&A.

“There was not a meaningful process where people could weigh in on whether or not this business should be coming into their community, whereas in other types of land use and developments there is a public input process that carries some weight … and because of this agricultural exemption that was not provided to this community,” said Diamond, who is also director of field operations for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.

These agricultural exemptions have been questioned.

“I think for the most part these are industrial production-extraction operations and they should be regulated as such,” Diamond said, answering a question by Wechsler of how she feels Hickman’s should be zoned.

“For the amount of time that I’ve been working on this issue — which has been well over a decade, not only in Arizona but in states all over the country — we’ve seen similar patterns where they come in under the guise of agriculture, but it’s actually industry and they’re producing as much waste as a small city or a large city at times.”

She continued, “And the waste isn’t treated properly like you would any other industry regulated under the Clean Air Act, regulated under the Clean Water Act because they get these agricultural exemptions.”

One audience member asked why a campaign hasn’t been started to dissuade consumers from purchasing Hickman’s products. Wechsler responded, “The issue becomes that the consumers can only go so far. At some point government regulations is what controls the prices.”

Citing agricultural economist John Ikerd, Diamond added that if the industry weren’t subsidized and regulation provided more accountability, “then the smaller, diversified, more pasture-based traditional farms that we know of from years past (would) actually have a fair opportunity in a free market to survive.”

Political activism was ultimately urged.

“I think people need to realize that your voices actually do matter and policymakers do need to hear from you. And it does make a difference because you better believe that they’re hearing from agribusiness, and that’s the way they lean because that’s who they’re hearing from,” Diamond said.

Resident Dan Blackson said the community has no legislative support. In particular, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Clint Hickman’s other job as the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors’ District 4 representative was questioned as a potential conflict of interest in the film and at the Q&A.

Wechsler encouraged the community to visit Maricopa County meetings and read up on the situation on STOPP’s website.

“On the national level, there hasn’t been a debate about agriculture in the presidential race since 1960, so raise your hand at a town hall and ask the question,” Wechsler said.

Now that the Hickman’s situation has gone national, locals are hoping for change. Mack’s dream would be for the company to move elsewhere. Diamond added Hickman’s could just change its business model to reflect something perceived to be less harmful.

“I think that they should look toward those types of models that are working in other places,” she said.

Blackson suggested Hickman’s “comply with the regulations and laws.”