Rural Georgians hold their nose as sludge is dumped nearby

By: - October 21, 2019 8:44 am

Trucking foul sludge, two tankers pass each other in front of Donna Blanton’s home in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. Contributed

The stench – reminiscent of a porta potty – was so bad that Donna Blanton would sprint from her front door to the car. Mowing the lawn required donning a mask. Cookouts at the house were no longer possible, since even her grown children avoided her home.

And then there were the flies.

“We have flies like we have 2,000 head of cow,” said Blanton, who has no livestock. She and her husband own a flooring business.

Blanton is a lifelong Oglethorpe County resident who said she likes the peacefulness of country living. But the rural charm of her homestead soured two years ago when a nearby farmer started applying a foul-smelling substance transported in by a steady stream of tanker trucks.

She later discovered through public records why the material reeked: It was from food processed waste, such as remnants from meat processing operations. The sludge was being poured in a lagoon about a half mile from her house and distributed in neighboring fields, she said.

And then the smell suddenly improved last month – when the county issued a notice prohibiting all applicators of “industrial waste” from disposing the sludge anywhere other than an approved solid waste handling facility.

The notice acknowledged that there are exceptions for agricultural waste but argued that industrial food production waste doesn’t qualify because it is the result of a manufacturing process. When one operation didn’t heed the notice, the county issued a citation for every tanker seen delivering a new load – resulting in a total of 32 citations in the following days.

That action, though, has triggered a lawsuit from some companies, including Wilbros, Ag Soil South and Corbet Spring Farms, which were not the same companies distributing near Blanton’s home. The companies argue that their product qualifies as a “soil amendment,” not solid waste. Rather, they say they are diverting reusable organic material from landfills so it can serve a beneficial purpose.

The county commission – mostly made up of farmers – has pledged to fight back in court, leaning on the county’s zoning regulations as the reason why such operations should not be allowed to continue to make life unbearable for residents.

“I asked one of the applicators, ‘Well, what exactly is in it?’” Oglethorpe County Commission Chairman Billy Pittard, who raises chickens, said. “He said, ‘Well, it’s chicken feet, chicken heads, chicken feathers, chicken fat, chicken guts.”

Billy Pittard, chair of the Oglethorpe County Commission, questions the agricultural benefit of waste byproducts being applied at farms in the community. Contributed

The businesses contend that their product consists of mostly water, according to court filings. Wilbros broadly outlined the contents, offering that its compost is comprised of waste like brewery castoffs, food and “secondary poultry nutrients.”

In Oglethorpe County, the waste was taken to about a dozen farms.

“I guess what they figured – and I’m just guessing – they come to a rural county and feel like the county is probably cash strapped and won’t challenge them,” Pittard said. “I think they picked the wrong one. We’ve got pretty good assets in reserves, and we’re prepared to spend it.

“In the end we may not win, but they probably could have found a better place to try to challenge it,” he said.

‘These people are ruining the quality of life here’

The businesses that have sued Oglethorpe County argue that state law protects their activities and that it’s the job of state officials – not locals – to regulate them. “Soil amendments” include a range of products – such as the poultry byproducts causing a stink in Oglethorpe County – that are used to improve the soil. AgSouth Soil says it injects its product directly into the soil, in part to reduce the smell and ward off flies and animals.

But outrage is bubbling up in Oglethorpe County and other northeast Georgia counties center, where residents and others question the agricultural benefit. They say businesses are over applying or misapplying the material – or just outright dumping garbage in their community.

At an Elbert County farm this summer, state inspectors found plastic tampon applicators, condoms, candy wrappers, plastic bottle caps, plastic straws and other trash. “The pit contained what appeared to be septic tank cleanout sludge,” read an Environmental Protection Division inspection report, which was originally obtained by the Elberton Star newspaper. “The sludge had a strong offensive odor.” In a nearby field, inspectors found “plastic tampon applicators too numerous to count” in the soil.

This photo, which shows a tampon applicator in sludge, was included an EPD inspection report at an Elbert County farm.

The state Department of Agriculture has since revoked that farm’s fertilizer license, although the owner has appealed that decision so the legal proceeding is ongoing, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Lawmakers passed a law this year that authorized the state Department of Agriculture to draw up rules for the odorous products – a provision that showed up at one point on the controversial “Right to Farm” bill that is still pending for next year.

Mike Giles, who is the director of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said the poultry byproducts are mostly water – which is heavily used during processing, to the tune of about 6 gallons per bird – and nutrients. Giles said it would not be normal for chicken heads and other parts to show up in the material once screened.

Giles said he wasn’t aware of any rogue operators, but he supports the push for more regulatory oversight.

“Part of what the department is doing is developing a rule that will ensure that these good, standard practices are used and the material is used in a way that’s beneficial and protective of the environment,” Giles said.

The department is still in the process of writing those rules. A first go at a public vetting prompted an outcry from the state’s public water utilities, who said the proposed changes could hurt legitimate uses of biosolids, or organic matter recycled from sewage.

A revised set of rules released this month is being publicly aired through Nov. 8. Some observers, though, say the regulations fall short, citing the lack of a buffer to protect the state’s waterways and the need for a site-specific permitting process.

Aside from the foul air, environmentalists and residents also worry about the potential threat posed to the area’s groundwater, agricultural products and private property.

Pittard said he isn’t waiting around to see what impact the rules have.

“We got to do something. These people are ruining the quality of life here,” he said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.