MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — Central and north Alabama landowners are planning to organize against the growing practice of applying treated waste onto farms and fields across the state.

A group of concerned citizens formed Alabama Sludge Awareness and plan to hold a meeting Thursday night in Guntersville.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management began regulating the industry through a biosolid program that was adopted in April 2020.

Most Alabamians became familiar with biosolids after a controversy in 2018 when it was discovered that train cars full of treated wastewater had been shipped to Alabama to be applied at a Jefferson County landfill.

Train cars full of the material sat idle along tracks in Jefferson and Walker Counties. Neighbors complained about odors and flies and dubbed the cars ‘poop trains.’

Neighbors who live near application sites continue to complain about odors and impacts to the surrounding land and properties.

“We’re not talking about animal manure or chicken litters from poultry farms, this is industrial solid waste that they are using as fertilizer on fields,” said Julie Lay, who helped form Alabama Sludge Awareness.

Industries and companies have been approaching landowners all over the state with offers to spread the material as a fertilizer for free or at a reduced cost compared to traditional fertilizers.

While some farmers have said there is a cost-saving benefit, landowners have concerns.

“There are potential fertilizing capabilities to this, however there is also dangers to this too that people need to be aware of,” said Lay.

Treated sludge or wastewater from treatment plants is often applied to fields. While the practice is regulated, many worry about what is in the material and how closely the rules and regulations are enforced by ADEM.

“The smell, the odor, and that is what everybody says, but really what my main concern is is what is going into the soil? What is going into our water, and what are we breathing in?” Lay asked.

Lay has been against the practice for several years. She particularly worries about wildlife such as deer, who may come into contact or consumer the material.

Lay and other citizens traveled to Montgomery to speak out against land application during an ADEM public hearing in 2020.

While ADEM said it crafted policies based on feedback from both neighbors and industry stakeholders, environmental advocates said the policies seem to favor the companies rather than the citizens.

“This is happening in Blount County, Marshall County, Cullman County, Morgan County, Jefferson County, Walker County, Clay County. This is occurring on multiple counties across Alabama and the issue is getting worse,” said Lay.

It has been difficult to find proponents of land application who are willing to publicly support the process since it often irritates surrounding neighbors.

In the 2020 ADEM hearing, Joe Saxon, of Saxon Environmental Service Company in Gadsden told CBS 42 that he believed it was possible to find common ground.

“Whatever regulatory basis we need, whatever testing protocol, whatever that needs to be to get it right, that is what we need to do. Let’s get it right. Protect the environment, help industry, help Alabama’s economy, and make sure our children are healthy at the end of the day,” Saxon said in 2020.

CBS 42 reached out to Saxon for an updated statement for this report, but he could not be reached.

Lay also believes there are compromises for both sides. She understands biosolid land application may reduce the cost of poultry products and help dispose of waste, but she would rather see people support local farmers and producers instead of the large companies.

At Thursday’s meeting, Lay hopes to hear from a variety of impacted neighbors.

“We need farmers, scientists, citizens. Even if you think your voice isn’t important, we need you to show up to this meeting to learn what you can do and how you can protect Alabama’s water, soil and air,” Lay said.

According to ADEM, the agency is in the process of gathering feedback to potentially revise policies. Chief of External Affairs, M. Lynn Battle issued the following statement to CBS 42:

In 2019, ADEM developed rules for the Beneficial Use of By-product Materials for Land Application which became effective on April 13, 2020. Since this time the Department has expended considerable resources regulating this industry, and has recognized the need to upgrade these regulations based on knowledge obtained during their implementation. Over the past few months ADEM has met with various stakeholders to discuss needed updates to the regulations. Currently, the Department is using the information gained through this interaction to complete the development of the proposed updates, which will be made available for public comment and subject to a public hearing to be announced in the next few weeks. ADEM welcomes and encourages public involvement on these revised regulations.

-ADEM Chief of External Affairs, M. Lynn Battle.

The Alabama Sludge Awareness meeting will take place at the Guntersville Rec Center at 6 p.m. Thursday December 2nd in MP room. Doors open at 5:30.