William Beck’s college-age daughters called him one day in 2018 and said they couldn’t stay at the family property. Their friends were throwing up due to the overwhelming stench.
“They said, ‘Dad the smell is so bad we can’t be outside; the flies are like what we’ve never seen before,’” said Beck.
Beck says owning land in rural areas involves being exposed to agricultural smells. That’s just life in the country.
“It could be the sour smell of silage or food materials,” he said. “Those are smells you should buy into if you have rural property. But the smell of death is something you would probably not expect.”
He said he reached out to the Smith brothers of Madison County’s Smith Dairy Farms, who own property across from his land on Centerville Road in Rayle.
Beck said he was told it was just manure.
“I said, ‘No, it’s more than that,’” he said.
Donna Blanton lives about half a mile from Smith’s property in Lexington. She said there were numerous truckloads of waste dumped per week and that being outside was intolerable.
“Horrific is the best term I can use, but when they were having this sludge dumped, it was impossible to do anything outside,” she said. “It was impossible to cut the grass, feed the dogs. It was horrible and it is not as bad today. They are using a different product, but the stench is still there.”
Beck and Blanton were joined by several property owners in Oglethorpe and Wilkes counties who have taken the Madison County farming business to court over spreading practices near their homes. They are also suing the companies providing the material.
A civil case was initially filed in Oglethorpe County Superior Court, but it was transferred to Madison County Superior Court in November.
Plaintiffs in the case include Beck, Blanton, Thomas Adair, Scott Powell, Wade Powell, Raymond Arnold and Ruth Wilson. Defendants are Smith Dairy Farms Inc., Smith Land & Cattle Company, Jeff Smith, Isonova Technologies, Wilbros, Denali Water Solutions, Prime-Pak Food, Victory Foods, Pilgrims Pride, Leon Jones Feed and Grain and Benson’s Inc.
The plaintiffs allege that the disposal was done in “in violation of a number of laws and regulations, including but not limited to, the Georgia Liming Materials Act of 1996 and the Dead Animal Disposal Act.”
They allege that there were “consistent foul and noxious odors and abnormal swarms of flies and other invasive insects.” Plaintiffs say they have experienced irritation of their eyes, nose, skin and throat as well as difficulties breathing due to the odor. They said their wells were contaminated with arsenic from the practice and rendered unusable. One plaintiff alleged that he “suffered a serious infection after coming into contact with water running off from the disposal operation.”
The plaintiffs contend that the Smiths are benefitting financially by giving businesses a place to dump waste at a cheaper rate than they can at a landfill, while spreading materials that “contained ingredients that would shock the conscience of local neighbors, including but not limited to tampons, toilet paper, and poultry carcasses and body parts.”
“For example, an inspection by state inspectors documents, ‘there appeared to be feet, heads and other body parts of very young chickens incorporated with the shells and feathers’ and that the pink colored objects appeared to be chicken carcasses, which appeared to comprise most of the load,” wrote Kyle Califf, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
THE RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS
Bob Mowrey, attorney for Jeff Smith, responded to questions from The Journal related to the suit.
“This is a legitimate agricultural practice,” he wrote. “These materials have valuable organic content, provide important nutrient values to soil, and support crop production. That crop production is in turn vital to producing feed for the cattle.”
Mowrey noted that Smith Farms’ dairy farm operations date back approximately 30 years. Smith Farms maintains roughly 2,500 head of cattle in Madison County and Wilkes County, including both dairy cattle and beef cattle.
“Smith Farms also grows crops on properties located in Madison County, Wilkes County and Oglethorpe County to provide high-quality feed for these cattle,” he wrote. “These properties total roughly 3,400 acres.”
The attorney pointed out that none of the allegations in the suit come from within Madison County and that all plaintiffs in the case are at least 20 miles from Smith Farms’ Madison County operations.
“Smith Farms has been supplied only materials that, according to the suppliers, have been registered with or licensed by the State of Georgia Department of Agriculture,” wrote Mowrey. “It has always been true that many agricultural operations in rural communities involve some amount of smell. In fact, the Georgia General Assembly has expressly recognized that fact because it enacted into Georgia law a ‘right to farm’ law designed to protect farmers against claims in certain situations. Although the lawsuit is in its early stages, that law may bar some or all of the claims in this case.”
Mowrey said the lawsuit makes allegations about the relative costs to Smith Farms’ suppliers of providing these materials to Smith Farms as compared to the cost if disposal were required.
“Smith Farms does not have insight into its suppliers’ cost structures and refers any questions on that issue to those suppliers,” he wrote. “However, it is Smith Farms’ understanding that the beneficial reuse of the types of materials that Smith Farms obtains from its suppliers is very common in Georgia and elsewhere.”
He said Georgia law encourages recycling and this practice is a form of that.
“The fact that the Department of Agriculture regulates the agricultural use of these materials through licensing and registration indicates this is a common, accepted practice and that the plaintiffs’ effort to characterize the practice as improper is misplaced,” the attorney wrote.
Mowrey said the plaintiffs’ allegation that water wells were contaminated by arsenic from the Smiths Farms operations is not supported by fact.
“By law, Smith Farms tests groundwater at its Wilkes County property periodically, and the results have not shown a problem, much less is there any information available to Smith Farms to support the claim that there are any impacts from its operations that have migrated off-site to any plaintiff property,” wrote Mowrey. “In fact, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division requested a round of sampling at Smith Farms’ property — apparently because of unfounded complaints from one or more of the plaintiffs — and those results confirmed again there is not a problem, including showing that arsenic, a naturally occurring substance, was undetectable in that sampling.”
Mowrey said the allegations in the suit arise from photography of chicken parts. He said Smith Farms “did receive a one-time delivery of off-spec materials from a supplier of eggshells that included some apparently very young chicken parts.” But he said the matter has been resolved.
“This incident was reported to be the result of a machinery malfunction at the supplier facility,” wrote Mowrey. “Those materials were never spread. Instead, Smith Farms worked with the appropriate regulators to ensure they were disposed of properly. Since then, the relevant supplier has continued to supply eggshells without further incident.”
DEPARTMENT OF AG REPORT
A report from a Jan. 3, 2020 inspection by Jennifer Wren of the Georgia Department of Agriculture included photographs of the Smith property on Centerville Road in Rayle. Wren was there with two representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
She wrote that “piles of whitish material near the storage pond were visible from the road.”
“A strong odor seemed to emanate from the piles of whitish material, and red liquid pooled around the edges of the material,” wrote Wren. “Shortly after our arrival, a tanker truck (labeled as Leon Jones Feed & Grain, Inc.) delivered a load to the site.”
Wren said Smith told her the material she observed at the property was a “registered lime product from IsoNova, although he could not provide any kind of label or documentation.”
“I verified that IsoNova Technologies LLC (formerly known as American Dehydrated Foods, Inc.) does hold a current lime license with the Department (license # 36) with one registered product: A.D.F. Egg Shells,” wrote Wren. “Upon closer inspection of the material, there appeared to be feet, heads, and other body parts of very young chickens incorporated with the shells and feathers.”
About an hour later, a second load was delivered to the site by Leon Jones Feed & Grain, Inc., Trucking.
“The material delivered in this load was noticeably pinker in color than the other piles of eggshell mixture,” she wrote.
“A closer view shows the ‘pink’ colored objects to be chicken carcasses, which appeared to comprise most of the load,” wrote Wren. “Mr. Smith explained that he plans to spread this material on the surrounding fields as a liming agent and then plow it in, but he has had to wait on clear weather to do so.”
She wrote that Smith told her he “receives this material approximately five days a week, with around two to three loads on each of those five days.”
Wren wrote that “the composition of the loads is highly variable, with some piles appearing uniform and finely ground, while other mixtures were more heterogeneous.”
Wren and a fellow Department of Ag inspector returned to the Smith property on Jan. 7 “to determine if the eggshell material had been incorporated into the soil over the weekend” and found “no apparent changes to the stored material, although flocks of carrion birds could be seen feeding on the piles.” Smith was told “he must dispose of the carcasses in one of the permitted ways by Wednesday, January 15, 2020.”
Wren visited IsoNova’s Dahlonega site and met with plant manager Daniel Rice, who said the site is a “liquid effluent retention facility (LERF) that “receives hatchery waste/offal from 28 Georgia hatcheries.”
“This waste includes eggs and euthanized chicks that have been macerated at the hatchery before delivery to the LERF,” wrote Wren. “Once the waste material is received in Dahlonega, solids are separated from liquid through a process of screening and centrifuging, which we were able to observe during our visit. The liquid that results is taken to IsoNova’s facility in Social Circle, where it is dried and powdered as an animal feed ingredient. The leftover solids are delivered to Jeff Smith’s property in Rayle to be land-applied. The Smith property is the only farm receiving this material, according to Mr. Rice. He stated that approximately 15 truck loads of the material are delivered to Mr. Smith every week.”
Rice told Wren that hatcheries compensate IsoNova for taking their offal.
“IsoNova uses a portion of that waste for animal feed production, but must dispose of the remaining, unusable solids,” wrote Wren. “They then pay property owners such as Mr. Smith to accept this material and land-apply it.”
FARMING OR WASTE DISPOSAL?
A point of dispute is the nature of the practice itself. Is it agriculture or not? The defendants say, yes, absolutely. The plaintiffs argue it’s not about farming, but disposal.
“This waste disposal operation, euphemistically called ‘land application,’ has been used merely as a way for all defendants to dispose of these otherwise hazardous, noxious, foul, polluting, pathogenic and odorous wastes,” wrote the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the complaint filed in August.
Plaintiff’s attorney Chris Nidel said he thinks the spreading practice is terrible and fits into a bigger pattern of companies exploiting rural areas.
“What’s going on is disgusting,” said Nidel. “To me, what’s interesting is this kind of thing takes various forms around the country. It’s going on in rural areas. Companies need to get rid of waste and they’re using farmland to do that. Farmers are getting paid money to dump waste and pretend they’re farming. It’s sad to see farmland used as dumping grounds for industry. It has an effect on the environment and the people living around that land.”
Beck said the “physical photosynthesis of this is supposed to break down the toxicity, and that’s how they got it filed as a soil amendment.”
“And that’s what they call it, but the Smiths were not integrating it into the soil; they were just dumping layer upon layer, and this stuff was just sitting on top of the ground and in some cases the sun would dry it out,” he said. “And in many cases, the heavy rains would wash this into the waterways and into the creeks. So that became a problem.”
Blanton said it’s wrong to call this “agriculture.”
“They were just a disposal site,” she said. “This had nothing to do with agriculture.”
Beck said the term “soil amendment” is “supposed to add value to the soil, but the only value that’s added is to a bottom line, a private equity firm’s bottom line.”
“It’s become a big game of disposal whack-a-mole, where you find an area that will receive it, you dump as much as you can until the stink gets bad, and I don’t mean just the smell, until things get hairy,” he said. “You face the oncoming noise and then you move to another area. And you just keep moving until you run out of rural areas. And then maybe you circle back to those.”
Jeff Smith, through his attorney, said claims that the practices are harmful aren't based in fact.
“Smith Dairy Farms takes great pride in farming our lands,” he said. “We would never spread products on our property that we thought would be harmful to our land, to our animals, or to our neighbors. We think the lawsuit is meritless. We will defend ourselves vigorously and expect to prevail.”