SALUDA COUNTY, S.C. (WIAT) — As neighbors in Gadsden continue fighting against a proposed chicken rendering plant, CBS 42 traveled across state lines to talk with people living near a similar facility.

For months, thousands of citizens in Etowah County have opposed a project by poultry company, Pilgrim’s Pride. The operation would involve trucking in chicken parts to a facility that would convert the product into ingredients used in pet food. There are fears about foul odors, truck traffic, environmental impacts, property values, and the effect on future economic growth.

Almost 300 miles away in Saluda County, South Carolina, neighbors there waged a similar battle in 2017.

“We actually got a lawyer to do an injunction to try and keep them from building the plant,” Saluda County local Denise Boatwright recalled.

Boatwright and her neighbors joined together to fight the project, while the company applied for permits.

RAW INTERVIEW: Saluda County resident Denise Boatwright discusses 2017 fight against chicken rendering plant

“Anybody that lived within five miles of this plant, we invited them to come to these meetings,” Paul Bartley, who also opposed the plant, added.

According to Bartley, worries stemmed from previous issues with an older animal rendering facility operating in the county.

“There were multiple questions that came up at that time because of the negative experience we have had with Valley Proteins right down the road,” Bartley said.

Bartley previously served as the mayor of Ridge Spring, a town in Saluda County. He recalled several incidents involving trucks from the older facility.

“The trucks came through there all the time and we had a myriad of issues with their trucks spilling the raw material on the road,” Bartley continued. “Once this came about we were concerned that… we [were] going to experience those same things.”

The new South Carolina plant, proposed by SC Pet Food Solutions, promised odor-eliminating technology, covered trucks, and wastewater treatment to minimize effects to neighbors, but many still had concerns. Despite the objections, SC Pet Food Solutions was built and has been Boatwright and Bartley’s neighbor for about two years.

“I have been pleasantly surprised. I am thankful that it turned out like it is,” Boatwright admitted. “The way their trucks are, they aren’t open, so they do not spill things on the highway.”

According to construction information provided by SC Pet Food Solutions to the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control, a regenerative thermal oxidizer and five packed tower scrubbers help control odors at the facility.

In Alabama, Pilgrim’s Pride has promised the same technology will be installed at the facility, if approved. The company presented details during plans at a Gadsden City Council meeting in December 2020. However, many locals have doubts about the promises and don’t want the city to be a test subject.

Pilgrim’s Pride has said it currently does not operate a facility with the proposed technology.

Differences in the two communities

Saluda County, South Carolina is a small, agriculture-based community between Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina.

“We are a county with 20,000 population. We have some surrounding counties that contribute to the workforce that we have here. We don’t have much industry beyond the poultry, the forestry, and the crops,” Jerry Strawbridge, Chairman of the Saluda County Council, said.

While there was pushback to the initial plan, Strawbridge said the industry made sense for the area.

“We’ve got two processing plants. We’ve got two feed mills. It was as a natural thing for the rendering plant to come about,” Strawbridge said.

Strawbridge said the plant added more than 100 jobs and contributed to the tax base. It was a big boost for such a small area.

“There has been very little opposition to SC Pet Foods since it started up,” Strawbridge said.

There are a handful of smaller communities near the SC Pet Foods plant in Saluda County South Carolina.

The following population data is based off the 2010 census:

  • Ward
    • Population: 91
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Food Solutions facility: 5.7 miles
  • Saluda
    • Population: 3,565
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Food Solutions facility: 7.8 miles
  • Johnston
    • Population: 2,362
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Food Solutions facility: 8.2 miles
  • Ridge Spring
    • Population: 737
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Food Solutions facility: 9.2 miles

Larger towns near SC Pet Food Solutions also include:

  • Edgefield
    • Population: 4,750
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Food Solutions facility: 16 miles
  • Batesburg-Leesville
    • Population: 5,362
    • Driving distance from the SC Pet Foods facility: 16 miles

Etowah County, Alabama

Etowah County, Alabama is home to more than 100,000 people and has a higher population density than Saluda County, South Carolina. There are several larger municipalities within a 7-mile drive from the proposed site near the Gadsden airport.

The following population data is based off the 2010 census:

  • Rainbow City
    • Population: 9,602
    • Driving distance from the proposed facility: 3.4 miles
  • Gadsden
    • Population: 36,856
    • Driving distance from the proposed facility: 6.8 miles
  • Attalla
    • Population: 6,048
    • Driving distance from the proposed facility: 6.7 miles
  • Southside
    • Population: 8,412
    • Driving distance from the proposed facility: 6.5 miles

There are even more people in unincorporated areas near the proposed facility.

Pilgrim’s Pride has maintained that there will be little to no impact, but people who work and live near the site have shared objections during public meetings throughout the process.

According to the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority, poultry processing—lagging just behind healthcare—is the second largest industrial employer in the county.

Koch Foods currently has 1,040 employees. An expansion was approved Tuesday to add 135 positions. Gadsden-Etowah IDA Director David Hooks said the expansion makes Koch the largest business employer behind the Gadsden Regional Medical Center. Tyson has more than 500 employees at its Etowah County facility. Hooks said there are three private cold storage facilities in the county that all focus on chicken. The IDA estimates there are more than 2,000 employees in Etowah County that are directly related to the poultry business.

While the proposed facility is in Gadsden city limits, it is just across the street from current businesses in Rainbow City city limits. Business owners there have raised concerns over conditions for current employees. Leaders in surrounding cities like Rainbow City, Southside, and Attalla have opposed the plant but feel powerless since the project is in Gadsden.

People opposed to the plan complain that the area is not a good fit for a rendering plant and would like to see the operation in a more rural area of the county.

Environmental organizations, like the Coosa Riverkeeper, have expressed concerns over the facility’s impact to the Coosa River. In addition to the river being a driver for area tourism, it also serves a source of water and way of life for many communities in Etowah County.

There are also concerns that the project would prohibit future growth near the Gadsden airport. Airport advocates have argued the facility is key for the region.

Pilgrim’s Pride previously said that other sites were considered but needed infrastructure improvements that were too costly.

South Carolina neighbors reflect on concerns

While many South Carolina residents worried about the noise from the operation, Boatwright said the impact has been minimal near her house.

“The only thing we hear sometimes is… the trucks sometimes coming in. And you know how that beeper goes when they start backing up?” Boatright said. “You can hear that at night sometimes when it is still.”

Boatwright said there are trucks that run 24 hours per day, and there is much more traffic on the smaller road.

She encouraged Alabama leaders to consider the conditions of all the roads the trucks would be using.

Saluda County Council Chairman Jerry Strawbridge said the road was in bad shape before the plant’s construction and has deteriorated with truck traffic. Since it is a state highway, the county is limited on what improvements it can make.

Saluda County officials said most of SC Pet Food Solutions’ poultry products come in from nearby processing facilities that are located within a 15-minute drive of the facility.

Neighbors like Bartley believe the proximity mitigates the risk of problems on the rural roadways.

“Since they are so close to the processing plant, they can not fill those trucks up to capacity,” Bartley explained. “That way it reduces the chance of spills.”

RAW INTERVIEW: Saluda County resident and former Ridge Spring mayor Paul Bartley discusses 2017 fight against chicken rendering plant

Like most in the area, Bartley and Boatwright rely on well water. There was an initial concern in the community that the operation could impact groundwater. After discussions with neighbors, Bartley said the company agreed to do more to monitor the effects. So far, Bartley said no major issues have been reported.

“One of the concessions that we got when we got to the negotiating table was that they put in more test wells to test groundwater for contamination,” Bartley said.

A small group of neighbors was able to get a seat at the negotiating table and even formed a committee to stay in touch with plant leaders to make sure promises are kept. Bartley and Boatwright, who are on the committee, have been inside the facility a handful of times.

“Prior to COVID, we were meeting quarterly with the pet food people going over what is going on at their facility,” Bartley said.

Wastewater was another major concern for neighbors in South Carolina. There are a few creeks near the facility that flow into the Little Saluda River. According to permitting documents, SC Pet Food Solutions has a wastewater treatment plant. At the treatment plant, anaerobic lagoons are covered to trap and route odors to a voluntary flare to minimize the smell.

“Another concern was, what they were going to do with the wastewater they were going to do that came out of there?” Bartley recalled. “They were going to put it on a field and use it for hay.”

It remains unclear if the company has since been in the practice of applying the water to fields. 3D Corporate Solutions declined to participate in an interview or share additional details about processes with CBS 42.

Boatwright and Bartley have reported occasional odors but said issues are resolved quickly.

“Every now and then we will get an odor from over there,” Bartley said. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey there is an issue.’ They jump right on it. They don’t wait a day.”

CBS 42 submitted an open records request to the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control for information regarding odor complaints and/or any fines or penalties against SC Pet Food Solutions since the operation began. DHEC is still in the process of reviewing the request under the Freedom of Information Act.

South Carolina residents encouraged Alabamians to continue to do research, ask questions, and fight for a chance to get a seat at the table. While the plant technology may be similar, neighbors insist success will depend on the company and the relationship with the community.

“You can have a plant that will have all the same technology, but how it is run, what type of materials go through there, and the dedication of their employees is going to go a long way into whether you have a good neighbor or not,” said Bartley.

Neighbors in Alabama have been skeptical of Pilgrim’s Pride’s promises, pointing to previous fines and penalties levied against some of the companies’ other plants.

Pilgrim’s Pride responds

According to a spokesperson for Pilgrim’s Pride, trucks that deliver products to the proposed plant would be covered and/or sealed and would be unloaded completely inside the facility. Because the facility will be kept at negative pressure, the company maintains odors are unable to escape when doors are opened for trucks to enter.

All trucks are cleaned before leaving the plant, according to information from a spokesperson:

It’s important to note that all water used to clean the trucks is captured, cleaned and treated on-site to meet Pilgrim’s high clean water standards before being piped to the local water treatment plant.

CBS 42 asked Pilgrim’s Pride about the source of the poultry products.

A spokesperson said that the products would come from four of the company’s regional facilities located in Russellville, Guntersville, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Carrolton, Georgia.

Pilgrim’s Pride believes it has more control over how the product is transported because it comes from other company facilities, a spokesperson said.

According to a Pilgrim’s spokesperson, if the proposed site is built in Gadsden, a water treatment plant would treat stormwater and water used in processing separately and in accordance with the company’s standards.

The water would then be piped to Gadsden’s water treatment plant for additional cleaning.

When asked if Pilgrim’s Pride would consider a citizen advisory group, similar to South Carolina, CBS 42 received the following response:

Pilgrim’s values a productive working relationship with the communities where we live and work. Our plant managers regularly meet and partner with local leaders to provide business updates, address concerns and identify ways to support the community, such as the Hometown Strong initiative.

Pilgrim’s is open to a dialogue with the community about a potential citizen advisory board or other venues to ensure citizen input and feedback. As our water treatment process will be the best in Etowah County and our odor-eliminating system is built with the best available technology, the company welcomes the opportunity to show a group of community ambassadors how the facility will function and the sustainability benefits it will provide.

While several Gadsden City Council Members previously expressed interest in touring a similar facility, a spokesperson for Pilgrim’s Pride said that has not happened yet:

Pilgrim’s continues to offer to show the council a modern, state-of-the-art rendering plant, but due to reservations surrounding traveling amid a pandemic, the trip has yet to happen.

What’s next?

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold a public hearing for proposed air permits at the Downtown Civic Center in Gadsden at 623 Broad Street. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, January 26.

While many neighbors plan to be at the meeting, attendance is not necessary in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Written comments will be considered through Feb. 2. More information can be found here.

According to city leaders, the Federal Aviation Administration is also expected to weigh in on the project because of the proximity to the Gadsden Regional Airport. Inspectors will make sure any structures at the proposed site do not exceed height or other requirements.

If Pilgrim’s Pride receives permits, the Gadsden City Council could then consider potential incentives for the project. There is no expected time on when city leaders could consider the issue.

Stay with CBS 42 for the latest updates.