“You ready?” John Mitchell asked, before rolling the down the passenger window of his truck just outside of Boaz, Alabama. “Brace yourself.”
As the window opened the smell of the nearby holding pond in Marshall County, where poultry processing plants dump leftover chicken waste, burst into the cab of the truck.
The overwhelming odor knocks people back, Mitchell said, covering his nose and mouth. It’s a bitter taste of rot.
Mitchell, who lives a mile away from the pond as the crow flies, tittered at the reaction of his passengers — one person gagged and rushed to cover his nose and mouth like Mitchell had — before he put the truck in gear and retreated down Mt. Hebron Road. “My daughter puked not too long ago when she came to our house,” Mitchell said. “It’s just not something you ever get used to. Some days it’s worse than others. It all just depends on which way the wind blows.”
Since late 2011, this smell has become part of daily life for Mitchell and at least 500 more people in the community of Mt. Hebron who have signed a petition labeling the operation a public nuisance. They want to shut it down — but since filing the petition, members of the community have had “no cooperation” from state and local officials in helping them study the environmental impact of the “lagoon,” as they commonly refer to it.
The rolling farmland of Marshall County, which is nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is home to a large number of poultry farms. The county ranks third in the state in terms of poultry production and accounts for roughly 1,563 jobs, according to the Alabama Agribusiness Council.
There are roughly 5.2 million broiler chickens in Marshall County, which has stayed at about that same level since 1997, though numbers spiked to 6.5 million in 2007. Nationwide, however, numbers have increased steadily in recent decades. In 2014, the combined value of poultry production in the United States was $48.3 billion, up 9 percent from the previous year according to the United States Department of Agriculture. With these rising numbers comes an increase in leftover waste from unused chicken parts at processing plants.
According to Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall, the lagoon is the only one of its kind in the state where food waste is dumped. Since the area is in an unincorporated portion of Marshall County, concerned residents have had difficulty navigating the complicated jurisdictional terrain when filing complaints and seeking injunctive relief. As Marshall put it, “Smell is a hard thing to quantify.”
Ricky Turner, a native of Marshall County, owns the land where the lagoon is located and originally leased the facility to C&E Supply, LLC, a company that used it to hold waste from a nearby Tyson processing plant that would later be used as fertilizer.
There are conflicting reports from the two companies who reportedly leased the land from Turner. According to C&E owner Bill Casey, “We sold it a year ago. We sold it to Recyc.”
On the other hand, Keith Paul, the owner of Recyc LLC, responded, “We’ve leased it for longer than that. Recyc has leased that property for quite a while. Ricky Turner owns the property and we lease it from him.” It is unclear what role C&E has played in the managing the facility.
When asked for clarification, Casey became agitated. “If you want to talk to me why don’t you ride your ass up here to my office?” he said. “I’m not in that business anymore.”
What is clear is that the facility is currently leased by Recyc, a waste disposal company based out of Columbus, Georgia, and is still used for similar purposes, despite Paul telling citizens they were looking to move the operation. According to a Recyc representative, Turner is now an employee of the company.
Despite constant pushback from the companies who have operated the lagoon, the Mitchell family has continued their fight to shut it down. When C&E owner Bill Casey was asked what he thought about the public’s opinion of the lagoon, he called the Mitchells “idiots” and said they need to “get over it” because the smell was “not that bad.”
The situation raises several questions about how waste from poultry processing plants should be disposed of, who is responsible for doing so and ultimately what governmental body should oversee regulations concerning proper handling.
“What Help Can We Expect To Receive?”
On June 3, about a dozen people who own property adjacent to the lagoon and others who live in the area, gathered at the Mitchell’s house to talk to a Weld reporter about the situation they’ve lived with since 2011. Most of them have lived in the area their whole lives and are used to the smells associated with country living.
John’s wife, Corriene Mitchell, brought out a stack of documents that she has archived since she first saw a tanker truck take waste out of the lagoon and apply it — as fertilizer — to nearby land on December 30, 2011.
“For six out of the seven days they hauled that stuff out there and sprayed it on the land,” Corriene Mitchell said. She immediately called the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), Gov. Robert Bentley’s office, the Alabama Department of Health and just about anyone else she could because, “I knew this was a serious situation,” she said. Everyone referred her back to ADEM.
On January 4, 2012, the Mitchells filed a complaint with ADEM that stated, “Waste of several types has been improperly applied on land and … currently waste from chicken processing plants is being improperly applied.”
On February 4, 2012, the Mitchells wrote a letter to Bentley’s office voicing their concern over the environmental permitting process that had allowed the disposal of food waste to take place in their community.
“We believe the permit process is flawed. Some of our more responsible and respected farmers believe the fertilizer content is harmful to the soil at permit level. It is certainly harmful when dumped excessively,” the letter reads. “We suspect that ADEM guidelines were written to benefit the poultry and waste industries financially. We believe the interests and concerns of citizens in rural communities were not properly protected.”
They received a letter back from Bentley’s office on March 5, 2012 that said, “I have asked a member of my staff to look into your concerns.” Several weeks later, concerned members of the community met with State Rep. Kerry Rich (R-District 26) who informed them that he would not introduce legislation regarding the disposal of waste. According to John Mitchell he told them to “obtain photos and videos of the problem.”
“The tricky thing about capturing what they were doing on video is that whenever they would see us with a camera out there, they would just stop what they were doing,” John Mitchell said. “Not to mention, a lot of the time they are applying this on private property.”
In order to be in compliance with proper waste disposal practices, John Mitchell said, the waste must be injected into the ground. Recyc owner, Keith Paul, said that is the standard practice his company uses.
“Nothing is sprayed on top of the ground,” Paul said. “The way the law reads is that you make an attempt to get it into the ground. So we’re rolling those [cultivators] across the ground and it’s cutting a slit in the ground and it’s spraying right into the slit so it soaks down. We’re not doing that anymore. What we’re doing now is shaking it into the ground. We haven’t sprayed this year. With shaking, it goes 12 inches into the ground…every bit of it is injected into the ground. It never gets on top.”
After going back and forth with ADEM for several months, even paying a $15 processing fee in order to track down the permits they believed C&E/Recyc would have had to obtain, the Mitchells received a letter from ADEM on March 20, 2012 which stated, “The land application of poultry material is typically considered a beneficial use which does not require a NPDES permit per ADEM Administrative Code r. 335-6-6-3(d). Certain requirements must be met in order for material to be beneficially land applied.”
At this point, John Mitchell said he began to feel like there was something serious going on with the regulations — or lack thereof — that were in place. In a letter dated May 24, 2012, John Mitchell voiced his concerns to Bentley. The letter — one of hundreds the Mitchells have cataloged over the years — marks a tonal shift in their appraisal of the situation after their efforts to get information about why the “rotten” lagoon down the road did not require environmental permits.
“There is a problem at ADEM. You may or may not be aware of how that department is being run.We find several things that have happened recently to be of interest… We have directed our complaints to [Rep. Rich] without results,” he wrote.
“We find it extremely annoying to ride down a highway and see that companies are required to place silt barriers to keep dirt from escaping construction sites,” the letter reads. “Our complaint is that Ricky Turner and his business associates are dumping huge amounts of poultry processing waste and Lord knows what else on fields in our county and adjoining counties. What help can we expect to receive from you?”
They did not hear back from Bentley.
Caught on Tape
John Mitchell was eventually able to capture footage of a tanker spraying waste on a field on October 12, 2012. He had to climb on the roof of a house and zoom in with his camera as he ducked behind a tree. The footage is shaky, but it clearly shows an unmarked tanker, which he saw come from the nearby lagoon, improperly applying the poultry waste to a field.
When the Tyson processing plant in Albertville — which is the main source of waste that is put into the lagoon according to Recyc officials — was contacted about how their contractors dispose of their waste, a representative hung up abruptly and did not answer follow-up calls.
Questions regarding the vetting process for waste disposal contractors were then directed to Gary Mickelson, a representative with Tyson’s corporate offices. He did not answer questions about the standard practices of waste disposal and what criteria contractors must meet in order to do business with Tyson.
Rather, he issued a brief statement in response. “Wastewater from our Albertville plant goes to the City of Albertville’s wastewater treatment system,” Mickelson wrote in an email. “Before leaving the Tyson plant, the wastewater goes through a screening process and Dissolved Air Floatation unit to remove solid particles, grease and oils. The materials collected through this pre-treatment process are subsequently taken by an outside contractor — Recyc LLC — for use as a fertilizer on land. Our company requires the contractor to abide by all federal, state and local environmental laws.”
Even though John Mitchell captured the waste being applied — improperly, he said — he said that he has had zero cooperation from state and county officials including both ADEM and Bentley’s office.
Lamon Dendy, a local cattle farmer who lives near the lagoon said that he has seen feathers left over in the pond, which can occasionally develop a crust. He said he would never consider letting Recyc fertilize his land with whatever they are collecting. According to him, his cattle have seen health complications because they drink out of Clear Creek, which he believes has seen the brunt of the runoff from the field application process.
“He wanted to put that on my land at no cost to me but I told him no,” Dendy said. “If you look at the pastures that have let him do it, they [have] weeds and it kills the grass that’s good grazing, like Bermuda. He gives them the sales pitch that this stuff is full of nitrogen and you’re getting free fertilizer, but really he just wants to dump it so he can get more from the poultry plants,” Dendy said.
Dendy also has issues with how the waste is being applied. “It’s supposed to be injected into the ground six or eight inches, but the smell is there every day,” Dendy said. “We did some water samples on the creek before [Recyc] quit putting it onto the field that runs into the creek. The results were terrible. We had calves that were dying that were watering out of the creek and we had cows that didn’t breed that year. We found E. coli in the creek and we took the calves and fenced them off and the problem stopped.”
According to samples that were taken from Clear Creek and processed on October 7, 2013, the E. coli levels were 400 col/100 ml (total coliform per 100 milliliters) which is over ADEM’s criteria of 235 col/100 ml for safe use.
Ascertaining the Impact
According to ADEM officials, numerous on-site inspections have taken place at the lagoon to determine if there could be any environmental impacts as a result of the operation. They maintain there is no need for permits.
Lynn Battle, ADEM’s chief officer of external affairs responded to questions about the lagoon via email on Tuesday. “The Water Division has received a number of complaints regarding land application of poultry processing materials in the general Mt. Hebron/Boaz area and has conducted numerous on-site complaint investigations to determine if waters of the state have been impacted,” Battle wrote. “Based on a review of Departmental inspections, no water quality impacts have been observed.”
Battle was then asked if tests have been done in nearby creeks to see if E. coli levels have increased since the operation began in 2011. Battle responded, “The Department has not conducted any recent water quality samplings in the nearby creeks. Typically if water quality impacts are observed or noted during an investigation, water quality sampling would be conducted to ascertain the impact of stormwater runoff.”
“Essentially Eliminated Any Odor”
Keith Paul believes that his company, Recyc has gone “above and beyond” to be good neighbors to those living in the community. Paul lives in Georgia and downplayed the seriousness of the smell that people living adjacent to his facility have to deal with. Paul also denied that his company would spray the waste onto a field despite there being video evidence to the contrary.
Email records indicate that in 2013, Paul was looking to “completely empty the holding pond” and told John Mitchell that he would look into alternative solutions.
In an email to John Mitchell dated May 5, 2013, Paul wrote, “Because of the weather we have just not been able to get it done as quickly as we would have liked. If we can get it completely emptied and keep it empty, there will not be any odor issues. I apologize for not getting this done sooner but I am not sure how we could possibly work any harder toward this end.”
On August 30, 2013, John Mitchell sent an email asking for an update on the progress of closing the lagoon. That same day, Paul responded, “We found another site 30 miles away that will work for us to put out except for in extreme circumstances…I looked at it yesterday and I believe that this will greatly reduce the need for the holding pond.
“We are going to purchase a truck and tanker to keep on site so that our local employees can work diligently at emptying the holding pond every day. I expect that equipment operational within a week. if [sic] that goes according to plan, we hope to have the pond empty about a month later,” Paul wrote.
Three years later the pond is still full and can be seen from the road in front of the facility.
“We’ve essentially eliminated any odor,” Paul said over the phone from Georgia last week. “About six months ago we installed a $12,000 motor controlled system that has essentially eliminated any odor. You’re welcome to check it out. I’d be glad to meet you there.”
Weld’s reporter pointed out that not only was there still an odor coming from the pond but that it was so strong it made him vomit. But Paul had an explanation for that, attributing the smell to nearby hog and cattle farms.
“There’s also a lot of farmers there, you have cattle across the street so there are a whole lot of odors. I’ve been there where they have the hogs and they smell a lot worse than anything that we have over there,” he said. Still, due to complaints, Paul agreed not to spread the waste within a three-mile radius of the lagoon in 2013.
However, those who have lived in the community their whole lives said they are very familiar with the different odors associated with farming and poultry waste disposal. They also question whether Paul has upheld his end of the deal with the buffer zone.
“Chicken farmers have to hold litter because of diseases and it has to go through a heating process,” Dendy said, visibly frustrated. “This stuff is going into that pond uncured. You don’t know what he’s putting in there because they don’t tell the truth about anything.
“They tell people it’s just food-grade waste like cooking oil and stuff, and there is no hazardous waste in it,” Dendy continued. “Well, if the chicken litter is hazardous and can’t be spread because of disease, then it stands to reason that renderings from those chickens that he’s putting in that pond have the same thing — the blood and stuff. Keith Paul told us what we was smelling was methane gas from solids in there decomposing. But Ricky said there were no solids in there. So there are conflicting stories about what is actually being put in there.”
“Never Heard of Them”
Despite having been involved with this situation for five years, members of the Mt. Hebron community still have questions about whose jurisdiction the lagoon falls under. “State officials have never been able to answer our questions directly,” Corriene Mitchell said. “It’s like they are playing a shell game.” She believes this is because the poultry industry in the state has “strong influences” over state politicians and that it’s not a coincidence that the lagoon is located in an unincorporated area. “This complicates things immensely,” she said. “No one knows who is in charge.”
Several years ago Corriene Mitchell said they made some headway with the Marshall County Commission. However, after the commissioner in charge of their district, Buddy Allen, passed away, he was replaced in 2015 by David Kelley, who Corriene Mitchell said is a lifelong friend of Ricky Turner.
“Kelley was appointed to take Mr. Allen’s place after he died,” she explained. “In December of last year he received a $500 donation from Ricky Turner and $1,000 contribution from Recyc. When we went to the D.A. in April, we asked him if he was aware that David Kelley was taking contributions from Recyc, they acted like they didn’t know. But someone there claimed they heard David Kelley say, ‘Anyone who goes up against that business loses their job.’”
Campaign contribution records confirm that Kelley received donations of $500 from Turner and $1,000 from Recyc during his 2015 campaign, which is equal to his largest donation. He only had one other $1,000 contribution that was not a self loan.
When contacted about the situation with Recyc on Monday, Kelley initially said, “I’m aware of it. It’s been an ongoing thing for a long time here.” But as for the company responsible, Recyc, Kelley said, “I’ve never heard of them.” When asked about the contributions he received from the company last year, Kelley said, “They gave money to my campaign but I didn’t even know who they were.”
As Kelley put it, “I take money from anybody.”
Kelley denied ever having said that anyone who goes against the company loses their job but did confirm he has known Turner, “[his] whole life” and he was aware that he leased the property to Recyc. “No I didn’t say that. I don’t even know nothing about no Recyc. I mean, I know they own that thing over there but I had to look it up to see who Recyc was,” Kelley said.
Kelley said he drives by the lagoon, “all the time” but he doesn’t live in the area. He also downplayed the odor coming from the operation. “It’s no worse than a hen house or a hog house. I was raised out here in the country. I’m used to the smell,” he said.
According to Kelley, even though his constituents have voiced concerns for years, there is nothing the Marshall County Commission can do. “The commission has no say so. No home rule or anything. It all has to come through the state and through ADEM. I can’t do anything about it.” Kelley said.
Turner could not be reached for comment.
Kelley’s contradictory comments about his awareness of the waste disposal operation outline the issues citizens have encountered while trying to figure out who is in charge of regulating the disposal of poultry waste. All indications — from hundreds of emails and letters that Corriene Mitchell has collected over the years — seem to point back to ADEM as being the regulatory agency in charge.
“Water That Would Not Be Accepted by the City”
From a legal standpoint, having a judge order an operation to shutter its doors because of an odor is a complicated task, Marshall County D.A. Steve Marshall said. He has been in contact with the citizens of Mt. Hebron for several years now.
Despite garnering 529 signatures on a petition labeling the lagoon a public nuisance, Marshall said there has to be evidence of long-term odor, which can be subjective. He told families in the area to keep a daily log, evaluating the smell on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst.
“We want to get a frequency of how bad the smell is,” Marshall said. “They could potentially file a public nuisance action or a private nuisance action. Public means that the smell and other things has to be a broad brush geographically. It has to affect a lot of people over a larger area. A private nuisance action could be a neighboring property owner and they could say they can’t go on their porch five days out of seven because of the smell that is there.”
When you file one of these actions, the remedy is twofold, Marshall explained. “One, they could abate the nuisance. The court would give the company the opportunity to resolve the issue short of stopping you from what you’re doing. If there is no way to abate the nuisance, the court can order you to shut it down,” Marshall said.
The petition residents have signed does not advance the cause of either a public or private nuisance complaint, Marshall said. “I’ve had investigators drive out to the area and they’ve said some days they don’t smell anything,” he said. “And other times they’ve said it’s about as bad as it can get.”
In spite of the evidence collected by members of the community, Marshall does not believe there is any legal action that can be taken to shut the operation down right now. “My understanding is that the wastewater that is taken out of [the lagoon] would not be accepted by the city of Albertville,” Marshall said. “You got water that would not be accepted by the city and it’s being pumped into a lined pond. That raises interesting questions for me.”
As for the evidence that John Mitchell caught on camera, Marshall said that is something ADEM needs to address, which according to John Mitchell, they have not done since it was recorded four years ago.
Rising tide of chicken waste
As poultry production in the United States continues to increase at a rapid rate, instances of improper waste disposal have been reported nationwide.
Michele Merkel, co-director of Food and Water Watch (FWW), a national nonprofit that champions “healthy food and clean water for all,” said that waste disposal for industrialized farming operations has reached critical mass.
“The system is not set up to effectively track this waste,” Merkel said. “There’s really no accountability about where it ends up. Can the end user responsibly accept it? Do they have a management plan that shows they can apply more waste? These are problems that are nationwide and there is very little transparency.”
A 2015 FWW study found, “In 2012, there were over 1 billion broiler chickens on large farms in the United States at any one time — more than three birds for each person in the country. The number of broiler chickens increased by 79.9 percent over 15 years, rising from 583.3 million in 1997 to 1.05 billion in 2012, adding about 3,500 chickens every hour,” the study reads.
Merkel believes the situation with waste disposal in Mt. Hebron is a symptom of a larger problem. “These situations arise because we have this system of industrialized farming and we’re cramming too many animals in a geographic area that can’t handle the amount of waste that is being produced. The problem becomes what do you do with it because we are out of balance.”
Instances of illegal dumping are not uncommon, Merkel explained. In July 2015 the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality investigated a Water Valley poultry plant for allegedly dumping their waste, according to a report by the newspaper the Clarion-Ledger.
“An investigator with the agency visited the plant in June after receiving complaints that 40,000 pounds of chicken parts were buried at the facility and there were concerns about the waste floating into the nearby Otoucalofa Creek,” the report reads.
Merkel also referred to situations of poultry waste being dumped near the Chesapeake region because of a loophole in Maryland’s law. An article in the Washington Post from August 2, 1999, outlines one such instance.
“Although Delaware and Virginia both regulate sludge [from poultry plants] as industrial waste, demanding that companies limit how much they put into soils, Maryland has, for nearly a decade, treated sludge as fertilizer,” the article reads. “Once a company sends a letter to the Maryland Department of Agriculture certifying sludge as agricultural waste, it can dump as much as it likes, with no inspections and no obligation to test soil or monitor for groundwater contamination.”
As for the residents living in Mt. Hebron, they believe the large poultry companies like Tyson could pay to dispose of the waste properly and are actively turning a blind eye. “They’re just trying to save some money,” John Mitchell said. “They’re not going to go out of business if they pay a little more to make sure their waste is being taken care of properly.”
Dendy said they aren’t against the chicken farmers in the area. In fact many of them are his friends. “We just want to make sure our water systems aren’t being polluted,” Dendy lamented. “That’s not unreasonable. We want to know who is making sure this isn’t happening. That’s it.”
For those who live down the road from the lagoon, all they can do for now is cover their noses and wonder how long they can hold their breath.