Pilgrim’s Pride representative responds to Etowah County residents’ concerns

December 18, 2020 chris
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Protesters gather at Gadsden City Hall on Dec. 8 to voice their opposition to a proposed rendering plant. Photo by Dustin Watkins.Visit propflier.com for more photos.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

While opposition towards the proposed Gadsden rendering plant brews, Pilgrim’s Pride is addressing the community’s concerns. Head of corporate affairs and sustainability for Pilgrim’s Pride and Pilgrim’s majority shareholder, JBS USA, Cameron Bruett, answered the questions posed toward Gadsden’s future.

“I think [some of] the concerns of the community, and they have valid concerns, are rooted either in misinformation or stereotypes of legacy rendering facilities,” said Bruett. “I think what’s most important to understand is this is not your grand-daddy’s rendering facility.”

A Nebraska native and Tuskegee University graduate, Bruett has been affiliated with JBS USA since 2008. Bruett noted that opportunity arose as a key factor in his relationship with the company, giving some insight as to why he felt impressed to remain an advocate for its mission for so many years.

“Our mission is to be the best and most respected company in our industry,” said Bruett. “That embodies everything we do, whether that’s sustainability, our business practices or how we deal with our customers and clients. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but that’s what we’re striving to be. What’s kept me at the company for this long is the opportunity, but I also believe in the men and women I work alongside. I know I’m not some fancy Harvard Ivy League graduate, but they let me sit at the table with further decision makers of the company and I can have an influence. When things don’t meet our standards, we call ourselves out and we hold ourselves accountable. It’s just a really great company to work for.”

Bruett further remarked that long-term relationships between hourly employees and the company are common and management teams typically work for JBS USA for 15 to 20 years. Concerning the Gadsden plant and the creation of jobs, Pilgrim’s claims that more than 100 construction jobs would arise during the facility’s development. Following construction, the plant plans to employ more than 90 permanent workers, with starting wages of $16.40 per hour. According to Pilgrim’s, the average wage across all positions is over $20 per hour.

While Pilgrim’s estimates that the project would attract more than $360,000 annually to the city, county and schools and $90,000 for the city in taxes, the financial drive of the project results from the company’s plan to boost the poultry and agriculture industries in the state. Bruett described Alabama as a place that understands the importance of agriculture and said that the company’s previous experience in Alabama produced more than 3,200 employed personnel, with an annual state payroll of over $113 million. Aside from the $70 million Gadsden project, Bruett said that Pilgrim’s has invested nearly $150 million in capital expenditures to invest in facilities.

When it comes to Gadsden specifically, Bruett shared what attracted Pilgrim’s to the city.

“The positive business climate,” he said. “The men and women that we’ve met here have been phenomenal. They want to grow Gadsden. They’re local folks who’ve been here and grew up here. They believe in the community. So, they’re not trying to do anything that’s going to hurt the community. They’re thinking about the long-term interest as well…those are the type of partners that we want.”

Long-term is the philosophy Bruett reiterated, describing Gadsden as a “thriving, burgeoning hub of economic activity,” emphasizing that Pilgrim’s desires to serve as a catalyst for further business growth in the community.

Aside from potential jobs and economic growth, certain concerns reoccur as the community investigates the rendering plant’s establishment in Gadsden.

The issue of odor and water contamination remain two major topics circulating rendering plant discussion. Bruett reiterated the plant’s focus on utilizing what the Environmental Protection Agency refers to as “best available technology,” which includes the plant’s dealings with both odor and wastewater. According to Bruett, the employment of a thermal oxidizer is designed to destroy the odor at the source, with odors combusted inside the facility (due to a negative air pressure system) with the intention that odors are never emitted. What is emitted, according to Pilgrim’s, is odorless carbon dioxide, nitrogen and clean water vapor.

The plant’s design incorporates an internal delivery area, which would allow for materials to be offloaded inside and trucks scrubbed clean prior to exiting the facility. Concerning the trucks entering and leaving the premises, Bruett did not foresee the average of 2.5 trucks per hour posing as a traffic issue on weekdays or Sunday, nor did he envision the trucks negatively impacting the quality of the roadways.

“These are food grade plants,” said Bruett. “They’ve got to be clean. They’ve got to be sanitary. You’ve got to be able to eat off the floor in these plants and provide really great products, because you’re producing food for people – food that people give to their children, or in the case of this rendering plant, to the children’s pets.”

Following recent statements by numerous local individuals and organizations like Coosa Riverkeeper addressing the plant’s disposal of wastewater, Bruett echoed Pilgrim’s stance that its water treatment technology exceeds permitting requirements. 

“We share Coosa Riverkeeper’s passion for clean, safe and protected natural resources,” said Bruett. “A critical element of this proposed state-of-the-art pet ingredient production project in Gadsden is its robust water treatment technology, which will protect area waterways like the Coosa River. All water used during the pet ingredient production process would be collected and treated at the proposed facility. It’s important to know that all water, including storm water, is treated and cleaned onsite to meet our high clean water standards. The clean and treated water is then piped to the local water treatment plant, ensuring further protection of local waterways.”

Recent alleged environmental violations were unearthed at the Dec. 8 Gadsden City Council meeting, to which Pilgrim’s directed interested individuals to its environmental policy.

“We regard environmental compliance as a basic requirement necessary to achieve our vision to be the best and most respected company in our industry,” said Bruett. “We recognize that environmental protection and resource conservation provide value and security to current and future generations. We are not perfect, but we strive for perfection. If we ever fall short of our standard, we accept accountability and redouble our efforts to improve.”

Pilgrim’s Environmental Policy includes a list of commitments that detail the company’s pledges in accordance with environmental standards. The list of commitments state that Pilgrim’s commits to “preventing pollution and protecting the environment; managing all operations in accordance with environmental laws and regulation; continually improving environmental performance by setting realistic and achievable targets; establishing and maintaining an environmental management program that monitors environmental compliance, strives for operational excellence through benchmarking and goal-setting to identify and implement actions that close performance gaps and continually improve operations, standardizes work through policies, processes and best management practices, educated team members to implement environmental policies, processes and best management practices, effectively implements and maintains environmental processes through capital improvements and proper repair and maintenance and validates processes through routine tracking and assessments.”

Bruett stated that part of Pilgrim’s “environmentally-friendly” mission is contingent upon the company’s reinvestment in its facilities (concerning technological updates and routine maintenance) and the communities where those facilities are located. Pilgrim’s currently has three facilities in Alabama – one in Enterprise, one in Guntersville and one in Russellville.

Bruett reflected on the company’s Hometown Strong initiative, inspired by the current COVID-19 pandemic, and geared towards assisting rural communities that partner with Pilgrim’s. He shared that Pilgrim’s just announced the state’s largest splash pad in Russellville and the donation of $1.5 million to Alabama.

When comparing the trio of Pilgrim’s facilities already operating in Alabama to the potential rendering plant in Gadsden, Bruett could not offer an exact differentiation between the technology of the previous plants and the proposed plant. While the three operational plants are functioning off of updated aging technology, the Gadsden plant would feature new, modern equipment. Bruett could not attest to how many years the “best-available technology” standard practices have been implemented in rendering facilities throughout the nation.

Although he could not define specifically what constitutes as modern technology, Bruett equated the Gadsden’s plant’s proposed technology to similar to other more recent facilities operating currently and far different from legacy facilities built in the 1970s or 1980s.

According to a fact sheet provided by Pilgrim’s, there is currently no contractual agreement between Pilgrim’s Pride and the City of Gadsden. Pilgrim’s Pride has not requested a tax abatement from the city – any incentives requested require a vote and approval from the city council. The fact sheet stated that the project will not hinder airport expansion nor affect airport traffic, and reaffirmed that the plant will be used exclusively for rendering chickens.

Bruett shared a message to the Gadsden community.

“We just want to be a part of what’s going on here in Gadsden,” said Bruett. “It is in the middle of what appears, to me, to be an economic boom – development everywhere you look. It’s an exciting opportunity and we just want to have the chance to be a part of that. There are fantastic people [in Gadsden]. There’s great opportunity here. We want to come in and provide high paying jobs and build a world-class facility that folks can be proud of, from Rainbow City to Gadsden to all the surrounding areas. We think we can pull that off, and we think we can really contribute to the good that’s occurring here. We’ll be a good neighbor and a good corporate citizen. You’ll be proud to have us, and we’ll be proud to be here.”