Georgia House OKs bill to give farms room to spread sludge, ignore stink

Donna Blanton of Oglethorpe County made the trip to Atlanta earlier this month to urge lawmakers to vote against a bill that rolls back the power of local officials to limit where smelly soil amendments can be spread. Trucking foul sludge, two tankers passed each other in front of Blanton's home in northeast Georgia. Contributed

State lawmakers are trying to scale back a law that they passed just last year in hopes of cracking down on the sludge that was being passed off in some areas as a soil aid.

But some GOP lawmakers say an oversight got through during the frenzied end of last summer’s mid-pandemic session when they did not put limits on the power of local officials to put distance between their residents and the obnoxious smells compromising their quality of life.

Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, said the measure also requires farmers to have a site-specific nutrient management plan before soil amendments can be applied. And he said revenue from a new fee would be set aside in next year’s budget for enforcement, although that money had been removed in the latest version of the spending plan.

“This bill is immensely important to the poultry industry in our state,” Dickey said Monday.

The measure failed with an 87-to-75 vote Monday but was resurrected through a procedural maneuver and then narrowly approved later in the day with just two votes to spare. Since the House changed the bill, the Senate will need to approve the bill again. Wednesday is the final day of this year’s legislative session.

Donna Blanton, a lifelong resident of Oglethorpe County, said the tanker-loads of industrial byproducts distributed near her home has made life unbearable for the last few years. She made the trip to Atlanta earlier this month to urge lawmakers to vote against the bill.

“I’m here today and I speak for all of my neighbors when I say that this stench was horrible – rotting pieces of chicken flesh and guts. The flies swarmed everywhere. We were held prisoners in our home and unable to use our own land,” Blanton told lawmakers then. “The same company applies eggshells to the land now – another soil amendment. The shells are just as nauseating as the sludge.

“I’m asking you today: Please do not pass the Senate Bill 260 and don’t allow these soil amendments any closer to my home than they already are,” Blanton said.

The 2020 law was designed to empower the state Department of Agriculture to regulate the mostly liquid products while targeting bad actors in the agricultural community who were dumping “adulterated” soil amendments.

In Elbert County, for example, state inspectors found plastic tampon applicators, condoms, candy wrappers, plastic bottle caps, plastic straws and other trash during a 2019 visit. Inspectors observed that a “pit contained what appeared to be septic tank cleanout sludge.” Georgia law now specifically says that domestic septage does not count as a soil amendment.

Under a proposal moving through the Legislature, no local buffer could exceed 100 feet. Sen. Tyler Harper, an Ocilla Republican, is pushing the measure because he says he is worried the state’s current law could be used to effectively ban the use of soil amendments derived from industrial byproducts.

“If all 159 counties decided to enact buffers, they could enact buffers to a point where the entire state of Georgia would be buffered out, so to speak,” Tyler said earlier this month.

But other lawmakers argue that a 100-foot buffer is insufficient and that this is the kind of zoning decision best left to local decision-makers.

“I just would like for you all to ask how you would feel about having this kind of smell six to eight car lengths from your front door, and I don’t think you’d like it,” said Rep. Mary Frances Williams, a Marietta Democrat. “I’m just really shocked that this is moving forward.

“I think that we’re not listening to people who live near these farms and fields that have been treated with this product,” she said.