Pictured above, local residents opposed to the rendering plant gather outside Gadsden City Hall during the Gadsden City Council meeting on Tuesday, December 1.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The possibility of a Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant located on Gadsden Airport Authority property roused much discussion Tuesday at the Gadsden City Council meeting.
Following a public meeting Monday at Southside High School, elected officials, passionate citizens and Pilgrim’s Pride representatives met to examine the topic of many conversations the past week.
Despite rumors circulating that the Gadsden City Council planned to solidify any agreements regarding the rendering plant, the council did not take action for or against the plant during Tuesday’s meeting. Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority Director David Hooks noted that the rendering plant project is only 25 percent complete and that industrial ventures of that magnitude typically take one to two years to secure.
“I’d like to make the public aware that we are going to follow this process through,” said city council President Dr. Cynthia Toles. “Where you got the information from that we were going to vote on [the rendering plant] today, I have no idea. There will be a public hearing whenever it comes to us again. Just to make it clear, we had no intentions to go into an executive session on this. We had no intentions to vote on this today. That information was not true – that was a flat out lie.”
The meeting instead provided Pilgrim’s Pride with the opportunity to communicate information to the public via a special presentation that detailed the rendering plant’s plan and objectives.
Pilgrim’s Pride representative Mark Glover equated rendering with recycling, describing the process of converting ‘inedible’ animal material (meat, bone and fat) into ingredients for other products like pet food and fertilizer. A PowerPoint stated that the rendering industry undergoes heavy regulations through a number of agencies, which audit the plants frequently depending on products produced and where the products are sold. All rendering plants are required to register in accordance to the Bioterrorism Act and plants that process raw material from cattle are restricted to prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) via the food and drug administration.
The potential Gadsden Pilgrim’s Pride plant processes poultry, which Glover referred to as a ‘higher grade protein.’ The rendering plant in discussion is restricted through the Food Safety Modernization Act, which regulates the way foods are grown, harvested and processed.
Major topics of concern regarding the Gadsden Pilgrim’s Pride plant – which would neighbor Rainbow City on Steele Station Road – were addressed during the meeting, including issues like odor, water pollution, environmental impact, the impediment of business future business growth and the citizens affected as a result of the plant.
In response to odor speculation, Glover noted that the plant destroys odors through two methods. A thermal oxidizer eliminates high-intensity odors, while room air scrubbers remove ‘low-intensity odors. When the material is converted through cookers in the plant, the thermal oxidizer collects vapors and decomposes them, releasing water vapor and carbon dioxide through a 65 foot tall stack.
Regarding the issue of water contamination, Pilgrim’s Pride engineer Barry Griffith said that all of the raw product is handled on hard surfaces, drained to specific locations within the site and pumped to the water treatment system. According to Glover, when the wastewater is sent out, it is ‘almost potable’ and clean, upholding the city’s requirements and standards.
“We’re spending millions of dollars to keep the odor out,” said Glover. “We’re spending many more millions of dollars to protect the water. If we didn’t do any of this, we could do the plant a lot cheaper. We’re going to be a good neighbor and we’re spending the money to do it.”
Pilgrim’s Pride representatives outlined their perception of the advantage of the plant to Gadsden in the presentation, stating that the plant would create 150 construction jobs, 90 full time jobs, a 70-million-dollar investment and additional tax revenue. As an essential business, Glover noted that the common worker wins in this situation, because Pilgrim’s Pride plans to pay one to two dollars more than the average Gadsden wage.
“When you bring in competition in any area, whoever is there now and whatever they’re paying, they’re going to have to pick up the pay,” said Glover. “That’s just the way it is.”
When asked about the alleged $24 per hour average wage, Glover could not confirm a specific amount, nor could he publicly announce the exact number of wages for plant workers.
Pilgrim’s Pride engineer Barry Griffith described the environment he intends to create for his employees and addressed the tensions brewing from opposition to the plant.
“We would love to be part of the community,” said Griffith. “We would love to be here. We think it’s vital to the poultry industry in the state for this expansion. Are we going to be perfect every time and not have a pump go out or a sensor fail? No. It’s going to happen. The reality is, we have put checks and balances in place to do the best we can, because realistically, I’m not so much worried about my neighbor as my employee. My team members matter to me. If it’s a nasty, smelly plant, they’re not going to show up to work. It’s really simple. So, I have to recruit labor, not only from an hourly wage standpoint, but I have to do it from an environment standpoint. It’s got to be a pleasant place to work. I don’t see how it’s going to be a negative impact for the community. Why would we be spending this much money to build something that nobody wants to be at? It doesn’t make sense.”
City councilman and District 5 Representative Jason Wilson requested clarification on the delivery trucks traveling in and out of the plant. According to Glover, open trucks sealed with tarps would transport chicken byproducts while tankers transport liquid byproducts at an average rate of two (and a half) trailers per hour. Church of the Highlands Gadsden Campus’ new sanctuary would neighbor the plant, less than two miles from the site. Glover projected that the traffic would be less on Sunday.
Nine households are within ½ mile from the proposed plant site, and 44 homes are located within one mile. In addition to the newly constructed Church of the Highlands facility, the plant would neighbor Westbrook Christian School, the Northeast Alabama Regional Airport and other businesses. Residents of Rainbow City expressed their adamant opposition to the plant, voicing their concern at the public meeting Monday and gathering both inside and outside city hall Tuesday.
Rainbow City resident, Etowah County Commissioner and District 4 Representative Tim Ramsey addressed the council and spoke on behalf of the people he represents in Rainbow City. Ramsey’s citizen request arose from commentary at the public hearing Monday night and detailed the Etowah County Commission’s previous involvement with the rendering plant prior to Gadsden.
“I do not want to mislead anyone here,” said Ramsey. “I want to give an accurate synopsis of where I’m at [right now] and where [the commission] was in this whole thing. I’m not an expert in industry. All I’m trying to do is give a first-hand account.”
The Gadsden-Etowah IDA approached the commission about the Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site serving as a potential location for the Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant. Following Pilgrim’s Pride’s invitation to tour a facility, Ramsey, Commissioner and District 5 Representative Jeffrey Washington, Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison and Etowah County Economic Development Director Marilyn Lott joined Hooks and IDA board member Chad Hare in February in Iowa.
Ramsey noted that the plant, located in a rural area of the state, did emit a strong odor in the frigid and windy air. Ramsey contrasted this experience with Alabama weather during the summer, which remains a source of concern for the general public in opposition to the plant.
Ultimately, Pilgrim’s Pride withdrew interest from settling on the Mega-Site. According to Glover, the project proved too expensive for Pilgrim’s to pursue the Mega-Site further due to the lack of utilities. While the commission never reached the point of voting, Ramsey stated that he felt relieved when the commission’s relationship with the project subsided. Ramsey, along with Lott and other commissioners, have been in opposition to the plant from the beginning, he said.
Ramsey noted that he did not intend to villainize or defend the reputation of rendering plants, but expressed his concern and objection to the plant’s location. Ramsey said that the plant’s name alone has begun inhibiting expansion in Rainbow City, deterring business from the area.
“I respectfully ask that you consider the greater good for all our citizens,” said Ramsey. “What I came here today to do was give a personal experience and represent the people who voted for me to represent them. I’m standing here today as District 4’s Commissioner. I represent the people there. I represent the people who were adamant [Monday] night. We don’t want this plant.”
Both Wilson and Councilman and District 3 Representative Thomas Worthy agreed with Ramsey concerning traveling to the plant prior to voting. Councilman and District 2 Representative Deverick Williams emphasized that if tours were held, subject matter experts should serve as required attendants to create clarity and deter the spread of false or inaccurate information.
Williams addressed the audience at the meeting.
“These people are here because they are concerned about their communities,” said Williams. “There is absolutely nothing in the world wrong with that. They have some understandable objections.”
Williams and Wilson both felt that the implication that the plant’s recruitment process was handled disingenuously and the attacks on the transparency of the project will not bode well for Gadsden. Hooks addressed non-disclosure agreements and the method of recruitment for the plant, stating that the same recruiting process was applied to the rendering plant as all other expansions.
“This is a pretty clear example of why you show those non-disclosure agreements,” said Hooks. “You’d never have any industry willing to come to a community that has been put through the rigors this industry has been put through with false information. Two reasons [for non-disclosure agreements]: one is to make sure that all facts are out initially on the front end, so the project doesn’t get killed in the middle of a process, and two to protect the integrity of clients because of confidentiality of competitive agreements.”
Wilson noted that he was not contacted by the commission prior to Gadsden’s involvement with the plant.
“One of the things that I want to explain that doesn’t get talked about a lot is that it’s a big deal when a state brings a project to your community and says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a potential 70-million-dollar plant,’” said Wilson. “When the state brings these projects to our community and we reject them or we have a big uprising and vote no on them, the perception is (I don’t know if it’s reality or not, and I’m not saying it is) that it negatively impacts our ability to work with the state on future projects. That’s the part that’s troublesome to me. I feel like the City of Gadsden tried to step in here and play a role that would recruit some pretty good paying jobs to the community, and they got an egg in their face here.”