When asked about the stench, neighbors in a rural corner of northeast Georgia tend to mention a single phrase: “The smell of death.”
As Steven Adair of Lexington says of the pervasive odor, “It was like tying a couple of dead chickens to your belt. There were people who were miles away complaining about it.’’
The source of the smell was a farm straddling the line between Oglethorpe and Wilkes counties, a property where chicken processing waste was trucked in and deposited.
Donna Blanton, whose property is nearly surrounded by the farm, says that if you parked in her driveway, “you had to cover your nose and run to the door’’ of her family home. She and her husband run a flooring business.
The smell wasn’t present during a recent visit by a reporter. That’s because the waste sites have been plowed under now, says Blanton. But she says this past weekend, the stench briefly returned. “Neighbors have complained of headaches,’’ she says.
Blanton and Adair are among a group of plaintiffs suing Smith Dairy Farms, Smith Land & Cattle Co. and Jeff Smith, the owner, alleging violation of state laws, negligence, contamination of their well water, and various harmful health effects. Other defendants include the trucking and processing companies involved in the waste spreading practices, which Blanton says began in 2017.
The plaintiffs’ complaints include “irritation of their eyes, nose, skin and throat as well as difficulties breathing,’’ the lawsuit says.
“Short term, you’d get a headache,’’ Adair says. “You felt like you were going to throw up.’’
The plaintiffs are also fighting Smith’s effort to rezone his land in order to operate chicken “stackhouses,’’ or litter storage units.
Denying the allegations, Smith says through his attorney, “Smith Dairy Farms takes great pride in farming our lands. We would never spread products on our property that we thought would be harmful to our land, to our animals, or to our neighbors. We think the lawsuit is meritless. We will defend ourselves vigorously and expect to prevail.”
Some dump trash
Complaints over the spreading of waster are not confined to the Smith case.
At an Elbert County farm, state inspectors in 2019 found plastic tampon applicators, condoms, candy wrappers, plastic bottle caps, plastic straws and other trash among the waste, the Georgia Recorder reported. “The pit contained what appeared to be septic tank cleanout sludge,” according to an Environmental Protection Division inspection report. “The sludge had a strong offensive odor.”
In a nearby field, inspectors found “plastic tampon applicators too numerous to count” in the soil.
Waste has been taken to about a dozen farms in Oglethorpe County, the Recorder reported in 2019.
Chris Nidel, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Smith case, says he believes the waste dumping on farms occurs because the chicken processing companies don’t want to pay landfill fees. Instead, they pay farmers a lower price for the waste disposal. It’s a problem in many rural areas, Nidel says.
“This waste disposal operation, euphemistically called ‘land application,’ has been used merely as a way for all defendants to dispose of these otherwise hazardous, noxious, foul, polluting, pathogenic and odorous wastes,” says the lawsuit, filed in August.
In Alabama, a state agency recently ordered a company to stop spreading poultry processing waste as fertilizer at an old coal mine north of Birmingham.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued a cease-and-desist order to Denali Water Solutions. Nearby residents complained of offensive odors coming from the site, and environmental groups were concerned about the waste reaching the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, as reported by AL.com.
Worries about water
Ruth Wilson and her husband moved to Lexington from Morgan County several years ago because they wanted more land.
She teaches at a local elementary school and also has 17 horses on her rolling land, many of which are rescue animals.
When the chicken processing waste arrived a few years ago, Wilson says, “it smelled like dead things. It smelled like rotten flesh.’’ It also brought swarms of flies and vultures descending on the dump sites.
“I have had severe headaches,’’ she says. “My migraines have started back up. My husband has had severe sinus problems.’’
Some locals, like Wilson, have stopped drinking the water from their wells. There’s no public water system in the rural area. They note that their arsenic levels in their water are high, which the lawsuit alleges is linked to the Smith waste operation.
Drinking water with arsenic in it can increase risks of cancer and other serious health effects. The federal limit for arsenic in drinking water, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 10 micrograms per liter. Blanton says the arsenic level in her well water at one time reached 10.3. She and her husband, Dennis, are drinking bottled water now.
The attorney for Smith, Bob Mowrey, says “Smith Dairy has not been provided any information by the plaintiffs to date that would support a claimed significant increase in concentrations, much less support a finding that any concentration of arsenic (which is a naturally occurring substance in soils and can be found naturally in groundwater) are due to any practices on Smith Dairy properties.’’
Smith’s farm properties total roughly 3,400 acres, with about 2,000 of those on the farm in Wilkes and Oglethorpe counties.
In settlements reached with the state’s Environmental Protection Division, he has paid a total of $16,000 in fines over waste practices, records show.
“Any resulting settlements are not relevant to what the lawsuit centers on,’’ Mowrey says. “Further, any settlements were reached without any admission by Smith Dairy.’’
As to the alleged effects on local residents’ health, Mowrey adds that Smith Dairy “has not been provided any information by the plaintiffs to date that would substantiate such claims.’’
Waste as fertilizer
Under Georgia law, chicken processing waste can be applied to land as a “soil amendment.”
But a state inspection in January 2020 of the Smith property found startling details about the waste disposal.
An inspection by a Georgia Department of Agriculture official reported “a strong odor seemed to emanate from the piles of whitish material’’ near a storage pond on the Smith property.
“Upon closer inspection of the material, there appeared to be feet, heads and other body parts of very young chicken incorporated with the shells and feathers.’’ Another visit found “maggots and blood’’ and “flocks of carrion birds’’ feeding on the piles.
Bob Mowrey, an attorney for Smith and his businesses, says “the materials at issue are produced by food companies (including from bakery operations, poultry processing operations, and hatchery operations) and can be beneficially reused by applying them to crop land. This is a legitimate agricultural practice. These materials have valuable organic content, provide important nutrient values to soil, and support crop production. That crop production is in turn vital to producing feed for the cattle.’’
When done property, chicken processing byproducts can be injected under the soil as nutrients, says Mike Giles, director of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
But dumping chicken body parts on top of land ‘’is not legal,’’ Giles says. “We don’t support that practice.’’
If the byproducts are handled properly, he adds, “there should be no health concerns at all.’’
The Georgia Department of Agriculture sees poultry waste application as a form of recycling.
“The Department recognizes that many byproducts of industries associated with agriculture are suitable for land application under Georgia’s Fertilizer, Liming Material, and Soil Amendment Acts,’’ says an agency spokeswoman, Julie McPeake, in a statement.
“Georgia’s Legislature has created a regulated pathway through which materials may be recovered from the waste stream and utilized for their specific properties on agricultural lands. The department has worked tirelessly with legislators, scientists, industry professionals, agricultural producers, and private citizens in the development and implementation of regulations which address concerns regarding the safety and viability of these recovered materials.”
‘Whole bodies of chickens’
Donna Blanton says that for a time in 2018 and 2019, 40 to 50 truckloads of chicken sludge arrived at the Smith farm each week.
Then came shell products. “The stench from shells was as horrible as the sludge,’’ she says. “It contained whole bodies of chickens.’’
Mowrey told the Madison Journal that “it has always been true that many agricultural operations in rural communities involve some amount of smell. In fact, the Georgia General Assembly has expressly recognized that fact because it enacted into Georgia law a ‘right to farm’ law designed to protect farmers against claims in certain situations. Although the lawsuit is in its early stages, that law may bar some or all of the claims in this case.”
Smith lives in Madison County, and for procedural reasons, the suit has been transferred to Madison County Superior Court.
Blanton testified this year at the Georgia General Assembly against a bill to limit local governments from imposing stricter buffers against waste dumping.
Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) pushed the measure because he says he was worried that the state law as it existed could have been used to effectively ban the use of soil amendments derived from industrial byproducts, the Georgia Recorder reported.
His bill passed narrowly, and was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.
Blanton, Wilson and Adair testified earlier this month before the Oglethorpe County Commission against Smith’s bid for rezoning his land to build chicken stackhouses. Much of their testimony centered on a lack of trust and the past sludge problem. The commission tabled the rezoning request, and will vote on the issue next month.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,’’ Wilson says of Smith. “I believe he won’t follow the rules.’’
Adair adds that with a rezoning, Smith “would have a lot more leeway to create a stench. He lives in a different county, so he doesn’t have to smell it.’’