Opposers of the potential Pilgrim’s Pride rendering plant gather outside the Downtown Civic Center in Gadsden to protest.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management held its highly anticipated public hearing regarding proposed air permits to Pilgrim’s Pride authorizing the construction of the rendering plant on Steele Station Road on Tuesday, January 26 at the Downtown Civic Center in Gadsden.
Specific COVID-19 regulations were enforced during the hearing, with all attendees wearing masks and subject to temperature screening prior to entering the building. Space inside the room for public comment was limited to implement social distancing, with no general audience and each speaker assigned a time slot. Of the 14 speakers who addressed ADEM representatives, each were allowed five minutes to share their testimonies.
Passionate residents crowded outside the center to protest the facility, gathering inside the Pitman Theatre next door where speakers were invited to reiterate their comments to the public, who could not view the hearing live. The hearing was recorded and uploaded to ADEM’s Youtube channel following its completion.
General Manager of Protein Conversion for Pilgrim’s Pride Mark Glover spoke first, reemphasizing the stance that Pilgrim’s proposed pet food ingredient plant will feature the most advanced available technology to promote sustainability. He noted the air quality and odor elimination technology is proven and extremely effective, stating that no water from the plant site would be discharged into local waterways. According to Glover, all trucks and trailers delivering to the plant would be covered and sealed.
“Simply put, the high-paying jobs and economic development of this plant will create will not come at the expense of Etowah County’s natural resources or quality of life,” said Glover.
All speakers following Glover opposed the plant, with elected officials representing the state, county and affected cities restating public concerns. State Representative Craig Lipscomb, Trent Thrasher and Lance Koury all joined the opposition speakers to advocate against the plant settling in Gadsden.
Rainbow City Mayor Joe Taylor was among those elected officials who spoke, representing the 10,000 residents who inhabit the city. He highlighted three topics he is entrusted with protecting as mayor: the children educated within the city, the community (along with its quality of life) and commerce. He addressed particulate matter, the term for a combination of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, which reoccurred as a frequent point of concern from speakers throughout the hearing.
“I’m not against growth,” said Taylor. “But I’ve already seen growth be stammered by this rendering plant or the proposition of it. I’m not against poultry. I’m against the fact that Pilgrim’s Pride came and asked for permits and said to us that this is good for us, that this is state-of-the-art. There’s no plant they can take us to that would be an identical plant to this. There’s no way they can prove the technology without being able to show us the technology. This is an experiment at best.
“I can go on and on in talking about what’s wrong with this. I want to speak to what’s right about our community. We’re a very small land mass county. We have a lot of people in a small area. I’m not saying we don’t need rendering plants – I know we do, that’s a part of the world. It can’t go in Etowah County, because of the three C’s: children, community and commerce. If we take care of the first two, the third will take care of itself.”
Rainbow City Councilman Jameson Jenkins echoed Taylor’s comments regarding commerce and the how the discussion of a potential rendering plant has affected future business for the city, resulting in stunted growth. Jenkins attested to the numerous individuals who contacted the council, anxious to establish their businesses near the proposed plant. He also referenced his position at an elementary school, where he witnesses the importance of children experiencing fresh air outdoors, a topic Westbrook Christian School Administrator Cindy Greer discussed later on during the hearing.
“Everything you see discusses the word ‘division’ about this plant,” said Jenkins. “I truly believe there is no division. I think it’s very clear that Etowah County, Rainbow City and every city within our county is very much united against this plant. There is no division at all.”
Rainbow City Councilman Jeff Prince contemplated the plant’s location in such a populated area, addressing the facility’s environmental impact on roadways. He recalled a spill from a truck transporting rendered materials traveling to Hanceville and the effects of the aftermath.
Etowah County Commissioner Tim Ramsey, whose district covers Rainbow City, expressed he had never witnessed such magnitudes of opposition to anything in Etowah County as the proposed plant. He described Etowah County as a bowl surrounded by mountains, with a higher particulate level than average, and discussed adjoining businesses impacted by the plant’s arrival.
Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director Justinn Overton and local attorney Christie Knowles discussed ADEM’s permit, which they claimed fails to address odors and air contaminants, while lacking required details in its abbreviated technical analysis. Overton expressed her concern that ADEM’s analysis and its proposed construction permit neither considers all the emission sources at the proposed plant, nor all the air pollutants that are regulated by the Alabama State Implementation Plan and federal Clean Air Act.
One speaker was not an Etowah County resident, but resides in Marshall County. Julie Lay lives 40 miles from the River Valley Ingredients rendering plant in Hanceville, yet she stated that her family and community have been impacted by the land application of wastewater sludge of the poultry processing facility. In referencing the sludge spread on land as fertilizer, she said “the potential contamination of thousands of acres of Alabama farm land and our drinking water does not equal a productive environment.” She noted that the Hanceville facility was responsible for 190,000 wet tons of sludge in 2019, as 2020 numbers were not available when she requested them.
“I’m here to oppose the building of this facility as it will negatively impact Gadsden, as well as many surrounding counties,” said Lay. “ADEM’s mission is to ensure all citizens of the state a safe, helpful and productive environment. The approval of these permits are against ADEM’s mission statement – therefore, the permits should not be allowed.”
A Pilgrim’s Pride engineer discussed the proposed plant’s technology prior to the hearing, noting that the term “state-of-the-art” is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The engineer said the technology that would be implemented in the Gadsden plant has been around for some time, comparing the proposed Gadsden plant’s technology to the technology of rendering plants in Europe that sit 50 feet away from housing developments.
The European plants use thermal oxidation to control the odorous compounds, as the Gadsden plant would possess a thermal oxidizer which (according to Pilgrim’s Pride’s fact sheet) is 99 percent effective at collecting and destroying volatile organic compounds, with discharge being odorless carbon dioxide, nitrogen and clean water vapor.
The engineer described the difference between a new plant built from the ground up and rendering plants of the past.
“It comes down to nuisances,” said the engineer. “If you’ve got a 20 year old Ford pickup truck and you’ve got a new one, they realistically do the same thing, but the way they do them is very different. With the new plants, you’ve got more automation, more controls…you’re able to create algorithms to adjust things on the fly a lot better. In over 25 years, the industry as a whole has funded several million dollars into various research organizations to study how we treat odor and those kinds of things.”
Among those nuisances were included a wastewater treatment process and blowers located inside the building to control noise.
“We will have a number of onsite labs,” said the engineer. “For example, our wastewater plant will have an onsite lab for continuous testing, not only from a processing standpoint but also to ensure that we’re discharging quality water. We do the same thing for our products to ensure that our customers get exactly what they pay for. We’re putting a tremendous amount of science into this project. It’s not a ‘Oh, we think this will work,’ kind of thing.”
In addition to addressing ADEM representatives at the hearing, the public is free to mail or email comments directly to ADEM during the comment period, which ends at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 2. For more information, visit http://adem.alabama.gov/newsEvents/notices/dec20/12pilgrims.html.