In response to numerous complaints about foul odors and environmental concerns, the state of Alabama has proposed tightening restrictions on disposing of poultry processing waste and sewage sludge.
A new set of rules proposed by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management would crack down on the practice of spreading sludge from wastewater treatment plants or poultry processing plants as fertilizer instead of taking the material to a landfill.
In theory, spraying sludge as festilizer can save landfill space, provide inexpensive fertilizer and decrease costs for industries to dispose of waste. But in practice, numerous Alabama residents have complained about foul odors, health concerns and being unable to enjoy their properties when the sludge is disposed nearby.
ADEM first enacted rules for beneficial use of what they call biosolids in 2020, but complaints have continued.
ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said the new rules were developed in response to those complaints.
“ADEM empathizes with adjacent property owners and residents who have complained about offensive odors and other negative side effects related to the application of byproducts to land,” LeFleur said in a news release. “The Department investigated those complaints and used the information gathered in drafting the more stringent rules.
The new rules would create different categories for biosolids that come from wastewater treatment plants and those that come from food processing, most often from poultry processing facilities where birds are cleaned, cut and packaged for sale. ADEM would also clarify that the rules apply to reclaimed mines.
One high-profile case that generated several complaints last year involved a reclaimed coal mine in north Jefferson County, where poultry processing waste was being sprayed from spreader trucks on the grassy hillsides near the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River.
In March, ADEM issued a cease-and-desist order to the company, Denali Water Solutions, saying the company had not filed required paperwork with the department and failed to follow best practices in applying material at the site.
In August the Arkansas-based Denali reached a consent agreement with the state that included $34,500 in fines and the company agreeing to stop spraying food processing waste above ground in Alabama.
The proposed rules also require additional testing for certain kinds of waste, more notification for neighbors of the distribution sites and addition operating plans and best practices documentation. The rules could be amended before being enacted by the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which oversees ADEM, or in the future, if conditions warrant change.
“The Department will continue to evaluate the program and consider future enhancements to the regulations so that by-product materials are utilized in a safe, effective and responsible manner,” LeFleur said. “The goal is to ensure that we have adequate safeguards in place, and the ability to enforce those safeguards, to protect property owners, residents and the environment.”
Julie Lay, a former poultry worker who lives in Marshall County, said the sludge was applied to empty fields next to her property near Guntersville beginning in 2019. She said that while the waste is intended to be used as fertilizer, it’s often just dumped on empty properties to get rid of it.
“I just wish they would call a spade a spade, and just say, ‘Okay, this is dumping,” Lay told AL.com. “This is a way for municipalities and industries to get rid of a waste product, and they’re doing it under the disguise of agriculture. To me, it just seems so obvious what they’re doing.”
Lay has been an outspoken advocate for stricter rules on sludge disposal ever since, and has started organizing with other Alabama residents impacted by sludge dumping to advocate for more regulation. She said on Monday that she hasn’t reviewed the new proposed rules closely, but took it as a good sign that ADEM was acknowledging the complaints of landowners like herself.
“I thought that was a step in the right direction, because ADEM’s actually saying ‘Yes, we do see a problem with this,’” she said. “But it’s almost like they’re afraid, like Alabama is afraid to say something to these industries.”
The new proposed regulations are up for public comment through March 17 at 5 p.m.
Comments can be submitted in writing to ADEM, or verbally during a public hearing scheduled for March 17 at 9:30 a.m. at ADEM headquarters in Montgomery.