Like it or not, Hermiston has found itself in the crosshairs of an issue that will draw national attention.

The hope here is that everyone involved — from City Hall on down — will draw a deep breath and investigate the issue thoroughly before reaching any kind of conclusion.

The issue is the proposal to build a horse slaughter plant on about 240 acres of land near the intersection of Westland Road and Interstate 84. It is an emotional, hot-button topic that has vehement opponents, strong-willed proponents and virtually no middle ground.

Technically, Hermiston doesn’t even have a say in the issue. The land is well outside of the city’s urban growth boundary, meaning all zoning and permit requests will be in the hands of Umatilla County and the state of Oregon.

 But Hermiston does have enough political clout to have significant influence on what the County Commissioners might decide. It  would be nice to see our city leaders flex that muscle wisely.

As I mentioned, horse slaughter is an emotional topic, with moral and ethical arguments bolstering each side. A story on the purchase of the land on the Herald’s website earlier this week has attracted in the neighborhood of 100 comments, with charges and counter-charges flying fast and furious. Folks from all over the nation have weighed in on the Herald’s comment section — an indication of what kind of attention we can expect as the issue begins to grow.

The topic also drew an immediate and vehement reaction at Monday night’s City Council meeting, with several members of the council and Mayor Bob Severson voicing strident opposition to the plan. Severson even went as far as to say that he and council members had visited a similar facility several years ago, and the smell made the area “unlivable.”

It is that kind of knee-jerk reaction that Hermiston doesn’t need. The mayor and the council didn’t visit a slaughter plant. As Councilor George Anderson gently pointed out, the mayor and councilors visited a humus plant, a facility where organic soil is composted. The two are nowhere near similar — but Severson’s reaction is an indication of what happens when emotion overrules calm, rational thought.

Anderson also made another point during the council’s discussion when he asked if the opposition would be as strong to an Iowa Beef processing plant. Anderson didn’t mention it, but there is a huge Tyson Fresh Meats plant just a few miles upriver near Wallula.

City Manager Ed Brookshier quickly said, “That’s different.”

But fact is, not by much. A slaughter plant is a slaughter plant. As one proponent of the plant has mentioned, Hermiston already has a small slaughter facility very close to downtown, and nobody seems to mind.

That facility doesn’t, however, deal in horse meat, and that’s where the emotion comes into play — and it’s where Hermiston’s leaders will be required to do their homework, study the issue closely and formulate an educated response.

If and when the plant gets closer to becoming a reality — or at least gets closer to seeking permits — we will hear about the ethics and morals of horse slaughter. We will be bombarded with horror stories of the practice, and inundated with counter-claims about how the industry has evolved. We will hear about jobs, about the increase in starving horses since slaughter was ended in the U.S. ... the information will be voluminous (and not always accurate).

There will also be the county’s stake in such a project. Organizers say the proposed 20,000 square-foot facility would process 100-150 horses per day and employ 80-100 people full-time. An adjacent rescue and rejuvenation facility would employ another 20-30 people. Such an operation would no doubt add to the county’s tax rolls.

These are all factors that must be taken into consideration by everyone involved. It will require rational, logical thought.

There’s no doubt Hermiston will have the opportunity to voice its opinion. But after all the pros and cons are weighed, after all the issues have been carefully dissected, I believe the final issue will be Hermiston and Umatilla County having to answer one very simple question:

When the national spotlight shines our way — and I can promise you it will — what do we want them to see?

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you’d like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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