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Missouri communities divided over spreading meatpacking sludge

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Missouri communities divided over spreading meatpacking sludge

Jun 06, 2024 | 3:25 pm ET
By Teagan King Athena Fosler-Brazil
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Missouri communities divided over spreading meatpacking sludge
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Anti-sludge signs dotted the roadsides of rural Newton and McDonald Counties on Feb. 24 (Athena Fosler-Brazil/Missourian).

GRANBY — About a year after Blair Powell built his dream home in the southwest Missouri Ozarks, a noxious smell wafting from the farm next door ruined his son’s wedding reception in their backyard.

“It just was ungodly,” Powell said. “Just the worst, horrible, horrible smell. Eyes were burning, some were just nauseous, and some were sick, they had to leave.”

The source of the odor was a large waste lagoon on farmer Jerry Evans’ property, about a mile behind Powell’s house. The open-air pit contains “sludge,” as it is colloquially known, composed of animal parts and wastewater from meat and poultry processing facilities. According to neighbors, the material looks like a gray slurry, thick as a milkshake, and smells like a dead animal — which is what it is. Arkansas-based Denali Water Solutions made a deal with Evans and other farmers to house the lagoons and provided the material to area farmers as free “fertilizer.”

Evans leased a patch of his land to Denali for a 450-by-350 foot storage lagoon in Newton County that held over 13 million gallons of waste and used the sludge on his own fields. Powell said it ran into his yard too, prompting him to build up a barrier around his pond to protect its fish and his grandkids, who play nearby.

Denali is one of several companies in Missouri supplying meatpacking sludge to farmers, a practice happening across the United States as concerns grow about spreading waste material on land.

Residents living near the lagoons and fields using sludge report a rancid smell that clings to them once they step outside, making it unbearable to spend time outdoors. Some are now concerned about contamination of soil, drinking water and streams, as well as possible disease from pathogens.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is reviewing three draft permits for land application of sludge from HydroAg, Synagro and Bubs Inc. covering 9,495 acres of land in southwest Missouri. Four additional companies have submitted permit applications to the department. The Columbia Missourian’s review of the draft permits initially found 60 errors, which the department has since corrected.

That’s only the beginning. According to public records the Columbia Missourian obtained from DNR, the department has issued over 1,400 permits for various types of land application of waste across the state, including meatpacking and sewage sludge. In addition, nearly 70 larger wastewater treatment plants in Missouri report applying sludge to land, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database, or ECHO.

Discovering Denali

Homestead farmer Caleb Wardlaw may have been the first to sniff out a problem. Two years ago, he noticed a nauseating smell on his land near Rocky Comfort, just north of the Arkansas border.

“There were all kinds of rumors going around about what it actually was,” Wardlaw said.

Wardlaw talked to Sheila Harris, a local reporter for the Cassville Democrat, who jumped in her car and traced the smell upstream to the Evans lagoon. Harris has since published dozens of articles on sludge, from the disruption Denali has caused in her community to state and national efforts to regulate sludge and water pollution.

As news got around, residents of Newton and McDonald counties got organized. Community group Stop Land Use Damaging our Ground and Environment, or SLUDGE, organized in 2023 and sued DNR to force it to regulate Denali as a solid waste management company due to odor and water contamination concerns.

SLUDGE committee member Vallerie Steele lives adjacent to the Evans property. As an emergency room nurse in St. Louis, she worked throughout the height of the pandemic. “I had my share of dead bodies,” Steele said. “This is worse than that. You open your front door to go out, the smell hits you like a brick wall. The flies are horrible.”

While the smell has the biggest impact on her day-to-day life, Steele and others have environmental concerns, too. One concern is PFAS, the “forever chemicals” commonly found in wastewater sludge.

“What happens when they find out it’s laden with PFAS, and the water’s contaminated to the point we can’t use it?” Steele said. “I worry about my kids, my grandkids, my neighbors, the generations to come.”

Denali and companies like it are adamant that their practices are not only safe but are the environmentally responsible option.

“Recycling valuable, nutrient-rich food processing residuals is crucial to protecting water quality in Missouri and necessary for the success of both food production and farming operations in the state,” Sam Liebl, Denali’s director of communications, wrote in an email.

The company is in the process of emptying the Evans Lagoon, the Gideon Lagoon in McDonald county and another lagoon in Macon County, following a DNR consent decree in January where Denali agreed to pay a $21,665 fine for violating clean water regulations. A DNR investigation found that the company applied so much sludge that it covered vegetation and pooled in saturated fields.

A community divided

The crisis has led to two state agencies intervening and a new state law to regulate sludge. Many relationships have already grown strained over the issue, and as sludge use grows, residents worry about what will happen to their communities.

Powell’s own brother-in-law has used Denali sludge on his farm. Powell said their relationship has soured due to their disagreement over sludge.

“Now it’s neighbor against neighbor, now it’s family versus family,” Powell said. “It’s getting to the point where I don’t know how it’ll all end up.”

In nearby Anderson, resident Jerry Mann is experiencing similar community tensions. His neighbor stores sludge supplied to him in large containers right along Mann’s property, worsening conflict between the two homeowners who already don’t get along.

About two years ago, Mann and several others nearby wrote a “nice letter” to the neighbor who was land-applying sludge, asking him to stop. Shortly thereafter, one of the neighbors saw the farmer using sludge in town. Their argument almost turned physical, Mann said.

“I’m not violent, but some of them get really, really violent about it,” Mann said, “I’m wary about somebody grabbing a gun and shooting each other.”

Evans, who agreed to host a Denali lagoon on his property, said he feels like an outsider in his community, as his neighbors no longer speak to him over the lagoon.

On an early spring day in February, he pointed out how his fields were blanketed in bright green, while his neighbors’ fields were still a dull winter brown. Evans attributed the difference to the sludge, which brought more stability to his yields. He said none of his neighbors have ever stopped by to talk with him about the lagoon, so they don’t understand why he uses it.

“Most of the people in this area don’t like me right now,” he said. “The people that are causing the uproar on this, I don’t usually ever visit with them anyway.”

Regulatory struggles and evolving science

County commissioners in the area feel powerless to stop the sludge use. McDonald County Presiding Commissioner Bryan Hall said he’s done what he can to help his constituents, but much of the problem-solving ultimately falls on DNR.

“We were kind of isolated down here in our dealing with it, and that’s one reason we weren’t getting much attention from the state legislature,” Hall said. “But when that (lagoon) was being built up there in Randolph County… it kind of opened their eyes and made them realize that this is not a problem that’s unique to one area.”

Sharon Turner joined the fight against sludge in March 2023 when she discovered Denali was planning to build a storage lagoon across the street from her property near Jacksonville in Randolph County, north of Columbia. Turner’s land, without her consent, had been listed as a site for sludge application. Turner is a member of a local activist group, Citizens of Randolph County Against Pollution, or CRAP, which filed a lawsuit that prevented Denali from filling the lagoon.

“The agricultural laws, rules and regulations are so lax and have so many loopholes,” Turner said. “That’s what’s allowed for the creation of this problem that we’re in.”

The Missouri Fertilizer Control Board transferred the authority to regulate sludge to DNR in spring 2023 after finding the waste material “did not have significant economic market value.” At the time, 13 companies were spreading waste in Missouri from 129 sources, including poultry plants, pet food companies, dairies and other operations in Missouri and seven neighboring states. In June, the DNR issued permit exemptions to companies previously licensed by the board. Those companies must now seek permits or find other ways to dispose of the waste.

The nutrient and chemical contents of sludge vary, and testing is inconsistent. Sludge contains phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients plants need, but the concentrations can be too high, said William Wymore, an expert in industrial wastewater treatment and executive producer of Good Morning Sludge Truck, a podcast explaining the complicated landscape of sludge production and management.

“We’re talking about nutrient loads that are literally thousands of times” the recommended amount of phosphorus, nitrogen and calcium, Wymore said.

Heather Peters, Water Pollution Control Branch Chief for DNR, said sludge can be beneficial as long as it is properly managed and regulated, but the department is still figuring out how to do this.

“It is a unique situation when we’re talking about managing these materials as fertilizer on agricultural land,” Peters said. “It could be done successfully if it follows the permit. This is new ground for us.”

No end in sight

The Missouri House and Senate recently approved House Bill 2134, which will create new wastewater sludge regulations under the Missouri Clean Water Act.

Michael Berg, political director of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter, said that his group approves of the legislation. However, Berg said it is valid for residents to question whether it will resolve their concerns, especially as the new company permits progress.

“I think the legislation is a good step,” Berg said. “(But) we have broader issues with the oversight over animal agriculture in the state and the monitoring of CAFOs and slaughterhouses.”

Powell is one of many residents who believes the waste companies will find avenues to continue their operations in Missouri.

“It’s all about money,” Powell said. “I don’t know how legislation is going to work out, but I think money is gonna win, whoever has the big bucks. So I think I’m stuck.”

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.