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Neighbors: Chicken sludge still stinks despite Alabama rules

December 20, 2021 GMT

DANVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Neighbors say new Alabama rules governing the spreading of poultry sludge on farmland aren’t doing enough to reduce the smell of decaying chicken or the animals it attracts.

The Decatur Daily finds that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has received 51 complaints about one site alone in Morgan County in the last year, almost all saying putrid odor makes it impossible for neighbors to use and enjoy their own property.

“Another great week of chicken death up here,” wrote Ken Thompson. “Thanks ADEM for the smell of death up here at our homes. … Looking forward to a weekend and running to the car so you don’t puke when the smell overtakes you.”

That July 23 complaint and others target Hidden Valley Farm, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Danville. It’s owned by Georgia-based Recyc Systems Southeast, which in turn is owned by Arkansas-based Denali Water Solutions.

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The poultry sludge is not chicken excrement. Rather, it is a slurry containing bits of dead chickens, along with other waste from rendering and processing plants.

Until April 2020, applying poultry sludge on farmland was unregulated in Alabama. Since then, regulations prohibit application or storage of the sludge within 500 feet (150 meters) of inhabited buildings or within 100 feet (30 meters) of waterways or the property line. No testing of materials is required. The applicator is supposed to develop a plan to minimize animals like rodents, bugs, coyotes and birds, and to minimize “odors and fugitive air-borne dust.”

Complaints have also been filed against Denali operations in Jefferson, Clay, Jackson, Barbour, Cullman, Russell, Etowah and Marshall counties. Alabama’s other major poultry waste distributor, Synagro, has been targeted by 20 complaints this year. Most involved farms in Marshall and Blount counties.

The complaints have prompted dozens of ADEM inspections, but few citations. ADEM has notified Denali of violations six times this year on farms in Morgan, Russell, Etowah, Blount, Clay and Marshall counties, usually involving violations of setback requirements. Synagro has received two notices of violation this year and three warning letters.

Opponents have formed Waste Sludge Awareness, which had its inaugural meeting Dec. 2 in Guntersville.

Environmental group Black Warrior Riverkeeper began receiving complaints of foul odors coming from an old coal mine in north Jefferson County. ADEM issued a cease-and-desist order to Denali in March, and in August fined the company $34,500.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s Nelson Brooke said waste companies save time and money by spraying lots of sludge in a small area.

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“They just don’t follow the minimal regulations that we have, and the guidelines, which require this stuff to be tilled into the ground and sprayed at a smaller volume so it can adequately percolate into the ground,” Brooke said.

“That way they can get rid of way more of it quicker, get back to the tanker truck and completely spray that whole 18-wheeler and get on to the next one. That’s cheaper for them, cheaper for the company that’s getting rid of it,” Brooke said.

Southern Environmental Law Center is representing Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Alabama Rivers Alliance in a challenge to ADEM’s regulations. Lawyer Barry Brock said Alabama’s rules are weaker than any surrounding state, requiring no testing or treatment for pathogens.

“In other states where they do allow that kind of industrial waste to be land-applied, they at least have requirements that it be tested,” Brock said.

Rickey Turner, senior project manager at Denali, said his company provides an important service that saves money for poultry processors, disposes of waste that would otherwise fill landfills, and benefits farmers by fertilizing land.

“Every single time we try to rebuttal, it always gets misrepresented. We’re always made out to be the bad guy,” Turner said.

He said extensive testing requirements are unnecessary because the chicken sludge is merely food waste. He said Denali does some testing, both for nutrient value and for the presence of some metals.

“They’re not showing the full picture of what ADEM is requiring us to do before we can even land-apply,” Turner said. “We have to have a nutrient management plan that shows soil samples, and metals in the sludge and nutrients in the sludge.”