DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Janice Williams thought something was dead near her Morgan County home based on the smell, but she couldn’t decide what it was.
“I thought the dogs might have killed an armadillo. I searched the yard for an armadillo, but then I found out where the smell was coming from,” she said.
The stench, according to the Decatur Daily, is from something called “beneficial food waste byproducts,” which is applied as fertilizer to land near where she lives. The sludge contains particles of dead chickens, along with other waste from rendering and processing plants.
Williams lives near Hidden Valley Farm, which is owned by Georgia-based Recyc Systems Southeast, a division of Arkansas-based Denali Water Solutions. The farm has been the subject of numerous citizen complaints to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management since Denali began spreading poultry sludge on the land last year.
Statewide, ADEM has received 51 citizen complaints about Denali in the last year, almost all involving odor. Twenty involved Hidden Valley Farm, but others involved Denali operations in Jefferson, Clay, Jackson, Barbour, Cullman, Russell, Etowah and Marshall counties, the newspaper reported.
Rickey Turner, senior project manager at Denali, said the company provides an important service that saves money for poultry processors, disposes of waste that would otherwise fill landfills and helps farmers.
“It’s a lack of education,” he said of Denali’s critics. “As an industry we don’t really counteract. Every single time we try to rebuttal, it always gets misrepresented. We’re always made out to be the bad guy.”
ADEM has notified Denali of regulation violations a total of six times this year on farms in Morgan, Russell, Etowah, Blount, Clay and Marshall counties. It also issued a cease-and-desist order and fined the company for alleged violations in northern Jefferson County.
Public concern over the sludge application led to the recent formation of a group called Alabama Waste Sludge Awareness, which had its inaugural meeting Dec. 2 in Guntersville. About 50 people attended, and most had stories about the smells emanating from farms used by Denali.
Ken Thompson, who lives near the Morgan County farm, is one of several neighbors who has filed complaints with ADEM.
“Another great week of chicken death up here,” he wrote in a July 23 complaint. “Thanks ADEM for the smell of death up here at our homes in Cullman County. … Looking forward to a weekend and running to the car so you don’t puke when the smell overtakes you.”
Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, which is fighting for additional state oversight of the practice, said strict regulations are needed because poultry processors and waste distributors like Denali have an economic incentive to over-apply sludge on farmland, which increases the smell.
Turner said extensive testing requirements are unnecessary because the chicken sludge is merely food waste, most of which is water. One of the company’s largest customers is a plant in Gadsden that produces McDonald’s chicken nuggets, he said, and the waste sprayed as fertilizer is virtually the same thing that’s included in a meal.
“It’s flour, got some corn meal, got some cooking oil, and that’s all it is. It’s 95% water,” he said.