Photo: Pictured is a map of local communities surrounding a proposed chicken rendering plant to be located off Steele Station Road on the Gadsden/Rainbow City border. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
If the general consensus at a public meeting last Monday (Nov. 30) was any indication, the construction of a chicken rendering plant on the Gadsden/Rainbow City border won’t be getting off the ground anytime soon.
In front of a crowd of a few hundred people at the Southside High School auditorium, representatives from local government, schools, churches, non-profits and businesses voiced their opposition to the proposed project, which virtually everyone in the audience opposed. Representatives of Pilgrim’s Pride, the owner and operator of the proposed rendering plant, were not in attendance.
Local residents expressed concern that the facility, which would be located off Steele Station Road adjacent to the Northeast Alabama Regional Airport, would have a negative impact on the economy and property values throughout Etowah County while wreaking havoc with the environment, particularly the Coosa River and its tributaries such as Black Creek, Canoe Creek and Big Wills Creek. The Gadsden Airport Authority owns the property.
State Senator Andrew Jones, whose district encompasses Etowah and Cherokee counties, announced that he recently formed a political action committee called Render it Useless. Jones said that PAC will allow for the “legally, ethical and transparent” raising of funds to support opposition to the rending plant.
“I want to make it clear that every penny of those funds will be used solely to combat the rendering plant,” he said. “Any unused funds will be returned back to the [PAC] donors who provided the money in the first place. Every dollar that is raised or spent will be accounted for through the office of the secretary of state.”
Jones noted that he “had serious concerns about the lack of transparency and potential open meetings act violations” surrounding the proposed facility.
“The powers that be may call this a done deal, but there is no such thing as a ‘done deal’ until it is done. Even if a vote is taken by the Gadsden City Council, it’s not done until we start seeing a building go up, and we’re going to fight it every step of the way to make sure that it won’t happen. If we continue to work together and speak with a unified voice, we can stop this [rendering plant].”
According to Jones, the facility would benefit a small number of people in the city of Gadsden while leaving local businesses, residences, farms, churches and schools to suffer the consequences. He added that his wife and in-laws own and operate a business less than three miles away from the proposed rendering site
“So, I’m personally invested in this fight,” he said. “I also want you to know that I do not work for the political elite in Gadsden; I work for all of you.”
Jones said that as soon as he became aware of the proposed rendering site, he contacted the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and reached an agreement to hold a public hearing, which he said most importantly would delay the process of approving a building permit. Jones added that with the coming holiday season, he hoped that the hearings for the permit would be delayed until after the new year.
“So, hopefully that will buy us some time,” he said.
Jones said that based on a Gadsden Etowah Industrial Development Authority report obtained by local attorney Christie Knowles, the Alabama Department of Commerce was trying to locate a site for a rendering plant in Gadsden as far back as 2016.
“It is not impossible that the State of Alabama has offered major incentives to local leaders in order to locate this facility here in Etowah County. So in other words, there is reason to believe that there may be larger forces at work other than just the City of Gadsden and Pilgrim’s Pride. Unfortunately, many things related to economic develop are kept confidential, and it may be some time before we learn the full story behind this plant and who all is involved.”
District 4 Etowah County Commissioner Tim Ramsey said for the record that he is in “complete” opposition to the rendering plant at the proposed site, noting that it would not be good for neighborhoods, schools, and industry or the airport.
Ramsey said that the Gadsden IDA asked the commission to explore the possibility of located a rendering plant on the Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site property located between Attalla and Steele off Interstate I-59.
On the invitation of Pilgrim’s Pride, Ramsey, Etowah County Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison, Etowah County Economic Development Director Marilyn Lott and county commission president Jeffrey Washington visited the site of a rendering plant in Iowa this past February, noting that the Gadsden Etowah Industrial Development Authority contacted the county commission about the possibility of putting a similar plant on Etowah County property.
“We did our due diligence,” said Ramsey. “Remember that this was Iowa in February and there was a smell outside the facility. From the beginning, my chief reservations, and this has been echoed by other commissioners, is what would that look like in July or August in Alabama? That plant was in the middle of a cornfield out in the wide open, so it’s pretty contained. If you put that same plant a few hundred yards from the runways at our airport and our other industry and less than two miles from our schools, there is a problem. The Iowa facility was state-of-the-art, but I do not believe it is a facility for that spot in this county. It’s a very short-sighted plan, and this facility is in the wrong place, period.”
However, Ramsey pointed out that and that the poultry industry in Alabama is a $17 billion-dollar industry. He noted that several poultry producers in his commission district told him that such a plant was needed and that he agreed with them. That statement did not sit well with much of Monday’s audience.
“There has to be a compromise in where this [plant] goes,” said Ramsey. “I’m a realist, and whether it’s in Etowah County or St. Clair County or wherever, it’s going to have to come somewhere. I’m looking at both sides of this position. I’m not opposed to finding a place for this plant, because if we’re going to have poultry in Alabama, we’re going to have to take care of the parts of the chicken that we don’t eat.”
Westbrook Christian School Principal Cyndi Greer, whose campus is located less than a mile from the proposed site, said that 5,611 school-age children reside within a five-mile radius of the proposed plant.
“Every one of those children deserve to be able to go to school and learn and play in a way that is safe,” she said. “In this time of COVID-19 restrictions, there one place that our schoolchildren can be normal, and that’s outside, where they can run and be normal. And guess what the main area that this proposed plant will affect? Outdoors. I just don’t think that we who live in Etowah County want it put on our watch that we allowed the future of 5,600 children to be affected because we sat and did nothing.
“It’s our job as educators to teach and encourage and motivate our students to come back to Etowah County after they graduate and go to college and start a career and start small businesses and run for city council and help us to make our county great. We don’t want our children to leave and stay away because our county smells.”
Etowah County Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Cosby pointed out that Rainbow Middle and John Jones Elementary, which has approximately 1,400 students, are located less than two miles from the proposed rendering plant.
“This has the potential to have a very adverse effect on our schools and our community,” he said. “As a school system, we’re for industrial development, because that what promotes healthy communities and schools. But it’s got to be at the right time at the right place. Getting school tax breaks [from industrial development] is great, but not at the expense of our communities and ultimately our children. The issue is keeping our schools safe, our kids safe and our communities safe.”
Trent Thrasher, owner and operator of Trent Thrasher Construction, LLC located at 3053 Steele Station Road in Rainbow City, noted that his business is very close to the proposed rendering plant. He urged those in attendance to contact City of Gadsden council members and express their concerns on the issue.
“We have to come together as a community as one and fight this,” he said. “There’s a time and a place for everything, and we don’t need this [plant], not now. I really would like to thank David and Julie Chadwick and Christie Knowles, because they’ve been fighting this from Day 1.”
Church of the Highlands-Gadsden pastor and Rainbow City resident Kyle Cantrell pointed out that the almost-completed new church, which is located on the old Dixie Pacific property on the corner of Airport Road and Alabama Highway 77, is less than two miles from the proposed rendering plant.
“Obviously, this will have an impact on us,” he said. “When we started [the project], we didn’t know [the proposed rendering plant] was going to be there. I believe that we as a community have the opportunity to do something amazing with what God has given us. There is so much potential and so much promise of what we can do in this area, that if we steward it well, we can have a big impact on the northeast Alabama region. I want to urge us to make wise decisions and make sure that we create something that our children will be proud of.”
Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director/Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said her organization is “firmly opposed” to the rendering plant.
“We focus on answering three questions: Is it safe to swim here, are fish safe to eat and what does the water quality mean for my community,” she said. “Nearly every single person in this room has raised their hand [to acknowledge] in some way that the Coosa River has impacted their lives. Fifty percent of the people in Etowah County rely on the Coosa for sustenance or drinking water. I work to ensure that the places you swim in, boat in, fish in and hunt in are safe for you and your family.”
According to Overton, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management regularly issues permits to facilities that fail to comply with current environmental regulations.
“I can tell you first-hand that [ADEM] is not interested in your health or the health of the water quality or the size of the largemouth bass that you pulled out of the river. They’re interested in issuing permits, but they have no interest in enforcing those permits or taking preventive measures health issues for the wildlife, much less your health as an individual.”
Overton said that while the proposed rendering plant might not release known carcinogens, it will release a good amount of emissions into the air and the local waterways.
“Based on the fact that I haven’t yet seen an actual permit, the wastewater plant will discharge into Dry Creek, which will then make its way into Canoe Creek, which will then make its way into Neely Henry Lake.”
Overton said that through water quality samples obtained by Coosa Riverkeeper, Canoe Creek already has a substantial amount of bacterial issues.
“Last summer, we tested there every single Thursday, and there was not a single Thursday where the bacterial limits exceeded what we deemed safe for whole body contact; meaning, you don’t want to swim in it.”
Overton also touched on the economic impact of a clean river, citing a recent economic impact study by Jacksonville State University.
“According to the study, Neely Henry Lake generated over $570,000,000. In a single week from a BassMasters Tournament, there was an economic impact of over $1,000,000. So for folks to pretend like the economy and environment are separate, that’s simply not the case. People are coming to this area because they want to fish and get out on the river. This a treasure that we need protecting.”
Knowles said that first goal should be to stop the project at the city council level.
“I don’t care how state of the art and how modern this facility is,” said. “You don’t truck in 1.2 million pounds of raw meat a year into our county and not have it smell bad. Mother nature won’t let that happen.”
Knowles, whose law offices are located in downtown Gadsden, said that the Gadsden City Council had the authority to put a halt to the proposed plant.
“[The council] might not have brought it here, but they can stop it. The tax abatements and other things that need to be passed will come before the council, so the first line of defense is to contact them and respectfully express your concerns. I can fight the legal fight all day long, the voices that are going to be heard are right here in this room.
“This may have been the way business was done in this county at one time, but not anymore. We do things a different way, a way in that cities and communities aren’t fighting one another. The sooner we can put this thing to bed, the sooner we can move to something productive that can unify us.”
Knowles added that state representatives Craig Lipscomb and Becky Nordgren, who were unable to attend the meeting, relayed to her their opposition to the project.