Pictured above, rendering plant protestors hold signs conveying their opposition at Gadsden City Hall on December 8. Photo by Dustin Watkins. Visit propflier.com for more photos.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Opposition against the proposed Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant surged last Tuesday (Dec. 8) at the Gadsden City Council meeting. As Etowah County residents voiced their concerns to the council, city officials and legal representatives shared insight into where municipal processes and citizen interest converge.
“What’s happened here, and I’m honestly really excited about it, is an entire community has come alive and realized they have to play a part in their community,” said Councilman Jason Wilson, addressing the community. “They can’t just let it go and not care about what’s going on. We’ve had issues that were equally as important to the community [as the rendering plant] and nobody shows up. I’ve never seen anything like this for any other issue that’s come before this body since I’ve been a city councilman. [But] you have to respect each other and you have to respect this process. I’m not going to be bullied into voting one way or another…I will review this process and come to a logical decision.”
Local attorney Christie Knowles addressed the council first, speaking on behalf of those in objection to the rendering facility and urged the council to listen to the voices of the people. She invited the council to not disregard social media, which has played a massive role as the medium through which residents are vocalizing their concerns, but to visit the opposition’s Facebook and investigate what is being said.
“It’s time for us to build something together, rather than to divide each other more by the issue we have here,” said Knowles.
Choice Fabricators, Inc. CEO David Chadwick discussed his metal fabrication manufacturing facility located on Steele Station Road in Rainbow City. Chadwick compared his facility with the proposed Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant, sharing statistics.
Of Chadwick’s 238 hourly associates, they earn an average PayScale of $14.10 an hour, not including 401(k) or Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance. CFI’s 42 salary associates earn over $60,000 a year per individual. According to Chadwick, when averaged together with benefits, the plant averages a wage of $26.81 per hour.
“This is not an Alabama City, Rainbow City, Southside or Attalla [issue],” said Chadwick. “It’s an Etowah County issue. I truly care about everybody in this community…I don’t think you’ll find one person that can speak up and say I don’t care about everybody in this community.”
Executive Director of Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton reinstated the nonprofit organization’s mission of the protection, restoration and promotion of the Coosa River and its tributaries in Alabama through a speech addressing the plant’s potential affect on local waterways. Overton noted that Neely Henry Lake is recognized as impaired on Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) 303(d) list for nutrient pollution, which she stated occurred as a result of excess nutrients from chicken processing plants. In the latest EPA Toxic Release Inventory, Overton said, chicken processing facilities discharge 1.4 million pounds of nitrates into the Coosa River basin.
“Rendering facilities and slaughterhouse waste contaminate our waterways with pathogens like E.coli and oxygen depleting nutrients,” said Overton. “Excess bacteria is already an issue in the Canoe Creek watershed. This summer, our organization detected elevated bacteria levels every single week we tested on Canoe Creek that exceeded the EPA water quality standards for whole-body contact – which is the government’s way of saying swimming.”
Overton addressed a major aspect of the local economy and tourism in her speech – fishing tournaments. She referenced a 2019 study by Jacksonville State University that concluded the combined economic impact of the Coosa River and Neely Henry Lake to total $570.66 million dollars to accompany a 2017 tournament bass fishing report that earned $10.4 million. In 2021, Neely Henry plans to host its first Bassmaster Elite tournament with live televised coverage.
“To continue to attract large, national-level tournaments such as these, we must prioritize the health of the lake and its fishery,” said Overton. “Protecting Neely Henry Lake as an economic engine, environmental treasure and public drinking water supply should be of the utmost importance to this council.”
Overton reflected on the Mulberry fish kill, an incident that occurred in 2019. In May of 2020, the State of Alabama filed suit against Tyson Foods for its role in the killing of approximately 175,000 fish on the Mulberry Fork of Black Warrior River. According to Tyson, the fish kill arose from the failure of temporary piping at the River Valley Ingredients plant in Hanceville, which resulted in byproducts entering the river.
“The proposed rendering facility includes a 4,800 square foot wastewater treatment plan with the possibility of surface lagoons that will discharge into Dry Creek, a tributary to Canoe Creek, which feeds into the Coosa River at Neely Henry Lake where families swim, fish and boat,” said Overton.
Overton described three methods of wastewater disposal by rendering plants, after on-site treatment – piping wastewater into local waterways, spraying it on land in the form of fertilizer or biosolids or sending the wastewater to a local treatment plant.
In addition to the Mulberry incident, Overton addressed the 101 complaints filed against the River Valley Ingredients plant regarding odor. She stressed the health conditions that could arise from continuous exposure to odor in the community.
“Odor problems in a community result in direct impacts like interruption of activities, nuisance and loss of quality of life,” said Overton. “It may also result in health impacts including sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, headaches, cough, vomiting and concentration issues.”
Overton addressed the issue of weak permits and Pilgrim’s Pride’s violation record. She stated that the company has had 44 violations since 2000, and violated clean air standards at four facilities nationwide within the past year.
“ADEM enforcement actions are discretionary and cannot garner a fine higher than $250,000, which is a slap on the wrist fine for Pilgrim’s Pride,” said Overton. “Pilgrim’s Pride has a horrendous environmental track record at their facilities across the nation. Why would their environmental non-compliance be any different here?”
Gadsden City Attorney Lee Roberts gave some insight regarding the process the city follows when recruiting industry. He shared that the city and the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority are currently under nondisclosure agreements and he has advised the city council to refrain from public comment at the present time to avoid inadvertently violating the agreements.
“I’m not here today to speak either for or against this project,” said Roberts. “I want to address one issue. I think the public needs to understand the process. I want to outline the process so everybody understands where we are.”
Roberts said that industry keep details involving potential new site locations confidential for a number of reasons. These reasons range from competitive reasons, fluctuation of stock prices, compliance of federal law or fluctuation of land prices where companies seek to locate. Roberts referenced Alabama Code Title 41. State Government § 41-29-3, a law that allows cities to enter into nondisclosure agreements with perspective industry. He explained that the law helps cities in Alabama get on equal footing with cities in other states competing for industry.
In the case of the proposed Pilgrim’s Pride plant, the state presented the project to the City of Gadsden – Gadsden did not recruit the project. When the state presented the project to Gadsden, Mayor Sherman Guyton and IDA Director David Hooks signed nondisclosure agreements before any details of the project were discussed. Since then, Pilgrim’s Pride has undergone its own process to determine the viability of the proposed site.
Roberts shared that a few aspects of Pilgrim’s Pride’s process include looking at site readiness, acquiring water and sewer, establishing contractors and determining funding. The process also includes obtaining various federal and state permits. According to Roberts, Pilgrim’s Pride is currently working through these requirements to fulfill its necessary process.
“Once those preliminary matters check out, and say the company still wants to locate here, then at that point David Hooks will discuss the full details of the project with the mayor,” said Roberts. “At that point, the mayor will sign a nondisclosure agreement concerning potential economic incentives with the state and [Gadsden]. David will go back and check with various state departments to make sure those numbers are correct. Meantime, that is when the council becomes involved.
“The full details of this project will be discussed with this council and they will have the information. At that point, there will be a public hearing. There is no timetable for this council to decide on the abatements and potential land transfers. They will have a full public hearing. Christie [Knowles] and David [Hooks] will have the floor and they can present facts and evidence to this council and they will consider it. Likewise, we’ll hear from the proposed company and they will come and present their facts with evidence. This council will have the opportunity to verify those facts and evidence. When those facts are presented to the council, that’s when they will decide.”