Rendering plant opposers hold up signs as State Senator Andrew Jones (left) addresses the crowd and local attorney Christie Knowles (center) and Westbrook Christian School Administrator Cindy Greer (right) applaud at the press conference on Thursday, Dec. 17.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A December 17 press conference introduced another element to the discussion surrounding the proposed Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant in Gadsden.
Senator Andrew Jones welcomed fellow public officials and Etowah County residents to the Westbrook Christian School gymnasium to learn about a bill in the works to dissuade animal byproduct processing facilities from establishing in the community.
Jones began with an overview of the bill’s structure, noting that the legislation covers any animal byproduct processing facility (such as a rendering plant) whose parent companies have been fined more than $50 million for violations of federal law or regulations since January 1, 2000, and are seeking to locate within three miles of a city in Etowah County.
Underneath the bill, animal byproduct processing companies would be required to compensate every single property owner within a three-mile radius of any facility, due to the loss of property value. The company would also have to pay for a property appraisal prior to commencing operations, then pay for another appraisal in the third year following the start of operations.
Following appraisals, property owners would then be eligible to seek payment from the company for the amount of lost property value. If the company chooses not to compensate property owners within 60 days, those owners would be entitled to go to court and seek double the amount of compensation due – plus court costs and attorney’s fees.
“There will be no getting out of this,” said Jones. “We are going to hold them to account and make them pay for the economic damage they will do to our community. We are potentially talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in penalty shares.”
In addition, the bill authorizes the Etowah County Commission, or a municipality located within the county, to charge a tipping fee for the use of any landfill by animal byproduct processing plants. Each and every time that a facility’s truck dumps in an Etowah County landfill, a fee may be assessed.
Furthermore, the bill specifies that the Etowah County Commission has the authority to deem any animal byproduct processing facility not in continuous operation in Etowah County for 365 consecutive days per year abandoned. The company would then be required to remove the facility and vacate the premises. According to Jones’ interpretation, this provision requires that the company leave the property as they found it.
“[This bill] means that if a bad-actor corporation with a history of violations is looking to locate here in Etowah County, they would be better off to go somewhere else,” said Jones. “If they chose to ignore the public and the will of the Alabama Legislature, they were going to have to pay to be here. They will have to decide whether it is worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to be here in a county that does not want them. They will have to decide whether it is worth it to build, for they must bear the cost of tearing down and leaving the land as they found it. They alone will have to decide if coming here is worth losing profits, just as the Etowah County businesses they affect will lose out as a result of their arrival.”
The bill is local legislation, meaning that it affects only Etowah County. While the bill requires Governor Ivey’s signature as well as full house and senate approval, Jones stated that local bills are often approved in the legislature as a common courtesy if the full delegation is on board. Jones said that he and his fellow Etowah County delegates – Representative Craig Lipscomb, Representative Becky Nordgren and Representative Gil Isbell – have the capability to pass the bill out of the Alabama Legislature.
Lipscomb shared an additional bill that he believes will work in conjunction with Jones’ proposition. Nordgren and Isbell refrained from comment until they review both bills further.
“I have not yet had the opportunity to read Sen. Jones’ bill,” said Lipscomb. “As I am sure you know, it is all about the details. I want to make sure that this piece of legislation can actually accomplish the primary intent, stand up in court and have no negative side effects. In concept and based upon the summary that I have seen, I could definitely support this bill.
Currently, I have a bill drafted and prepared to submit in February that is entitled the ‘Good Neighbor Act.’ It states that “Relating to municipalities; to require a municipality, industrial development board, or property owner taking significant development action for the construction or development of an animal processing facility in the corporate limits of a municipality and within a close proximity (3 miles) to the corporate limits of a contiguous neighboring municipality to give notice to the mayor and city council of the contiguous municipality
While mine is a statewide bill and his is a local bill, they should go hand in hand to insure that our represented districts can continue to pursue industrial and manufacturing facilities and high quality jobs while being sensitive to their neighbors and the quality of life of the community they are adjacent to.”
Jones’ bill has been submitted for advertising. Due to the advanced public notice the advertising process provides, the bill would cover any animal byproduct facility beginning operations for six months prior to becoming law.
Westbrook Christian Administrator Cindy Greer reiterated constant concerns of how the plant’s proximity would affect the livelihood of local children, stating that there are two other schools that collectively create approximately 2,000 children who deserve to attend class in a clean environment and play outside.
“You’re now standing 1.42 miles from where this proposed location is,” said Greer.
Local attorney Christie Knowles represented her client Choice Fabricators owner David Chadwick, who she accredited as one of the first who discovered the news regarding the proposed plant. She expressed her support for the bill.
“I think this bill is a wonderful tool,” said Knowles. “It’s something we need to have here. But, I still believe that the Gadsden City Council’s vote to deny any abatements or incentives that would reduce the rendering plant to come to this county is due. We need them to still deny this, and we need their vote. We’re still looking to them. Should that not occur or the delay continue, we’ve got some leadership and backup in Montgomery to discourage rendering plants from coming here.”
Following speculation that an Alabama Department of Environmental Management public hearing might provide further context for city officials to reach an appropriate conclusion, ADEM announced its public hearing date. The ADEM public hearing for proposed air permits for the potential Pilgrim’s plant is scheduled for January 26, 2021 at 6 p.m. at the Downtown Civic Center in Gadsden.