The first thing they noticed was the smell, a wave of putrescence that rolled across their property and settled in, into their homes, their vehicles, their clothes.
“We would welcome the smell of chicken litter. We know what that’s like, living on a farm,” said Angela Walden. “But this is far worse. The best way to describe this is the smell of death.”
As the smell spread, buzzards, flocks of them, spiraled down and into the neighboring fields.
“We hoped it was just going to be a few days, that it would get better,” Walden said.
It did not. Next came the flies. Clouds of them that swarm and bite every living thing.
Cameron Clark, a resident of Avera, said that his daughters, ages 4 and 10, cannot go outside and play.
“If they do, then as soon as they get back in the house it’s straight to the shower they go. Flies are immediately coming out of their hair,” Clark said. He lives about a mile from the source of the problem.
Tuesday, Sept. 13, a crowd of frustrated, angry and concerned citizens attended the Jefferson County Commission meeting asking for help to stop several area landowners who are currently spreading soil amendments on rural property throughout the county. Citizens complained specifically about sites on Clarks Mill Road, Highway 88 near Avera and Gamble School Road near Stapleton.
These amendments, known to many as sludge, are a mixture of solids and liquids, many of which originate in meat and other food processing facilities, farmers use to both improve nutrients in soil, but also improve the texture and water-absorbing qualities of the dirt.
Carly Nielsen, the Upper Watershed Representative of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper told the commissioners that she will call the stuff what it is, “chicken blood and guts and the toxic industrial cleaners that come along with it.”
Walden told commissioners that within days of a neighbor applying these amendments to property adjacent to her family’s farm her father, who lives on the property and her husband, who was working there, started having daily headaches, nausea and a sore throat that doctors attributed to an environmental stimuli.
“The horrid smell and the millions of flies make anything outside unbearable,” Walden said. “Simple things like cutting the grass, feeding your animals, hauling hay, working on fence, all of that is now a misery because of the awful smell and the plague of flies. My father can no longer enjoy the farm he has lived on and cherished for 78 years.”
Other citizens made similar complaints about the smell and flies and voiced concerns about their drinking water.
Colt Turner told commissioners that the land applications of these soil amendments near his home on Highway 88 have impacted both his family and his livelihood.
He said that people from all over the country send their horses to him there for training.
“I can’t keep them in the barn because they can’t get away from the flies. I have to keep them in the pasture so they can roll and do anything to get away from them. It is hurting my business,” Turner said. “I have to explain the smell. I have to explain why the horses are out and sun-bleached. This brings in the birds, the buzzards and cowbirds. They’re coming in and eating and then flying to every farm and who knows what they are spreading.”
Turner and others talked about how the smell gets into their clothes and homes and how they have to burn candles constantly to be able to sleep.
“Last night my land taxes came in and it got me thinking. If I did want to move or sell, there’s no way somebody could move into my place right now. It is actually awful. I don’t want to be there myself, much less see if someone would want to move in,” Turner said. “I’ve spent every penny I’ve made to try to make a place I can be proud of and you can’t even go outside and enjoy being in the yard with the kids because of the flies.”
A Problem Across the State
Today, the use of soil amendments continues to be a legal practice. Considered an agricultural product, soil amendments are approved and regulated by the Department of Agriculture. But both environmental protection groups like the Ogeechee Riverkeeper as well as governmental agencies like Jefferson County’s Board of Commissioners across the state argue that neither this state agency, nor the Environmental Protection Division (EPD), have the resources to adequately monitor these operations, let alone investigate the allegations of inappropriate applications.
A Wilkes County Administrator, where soil amendments recently spilled into neighboring Washington County’s Little River killing 1,700 fish, told reporters that he had reported multiple complaints regarding soil amendments. Not only did the responsible agencies not have the resources to respond in a timely fashion, but he often found himself being directed from one agency to the other, between the EPD and the Department of Agriculture, as each said it was the other’s issue to address.
Department of Agriculture representatives have said that the agency is reviewing new rules that will clarify regulations and record-keeping for soil amendments, introduce product control contractors, require site specific nutrient management plans and add testing requirements. However, many have concerns that these changes do not address the staffing issues in the regulatory agencies.
Nielsen, the Riverkeeper representative, said that issues like these can at least partially be improved if the state would give more power to local authorities.
“With more regulation oversight, applicators spreading soil amendments at inappropriate rates will be held accountable,” she said. “As of right now, the Department of Agriculture is too understaffed. They have a couple of new code enforcement people, but it’s just not enough. We need the counties to have more oversight. And we want permits as well so we can track these people and make sure they are doing what they need to be.”
Jefferson is one of several members of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), who recently submitted a letter to the Department of Agriculture regarding suggested rule changes for soil amendments.
In its letter ACCG requested that the new rules give county governing authorities, such as county code enforcement agents, the jurisdiction to inspect locations where these ag products are being applied. ACCG also asked for the ability for counties to enforce buffers around soil amendment properties. Before the rules are finalized, ACCG asks that “a stakeholder group be assembled to gain an understanding of the intent of the language used in the rules, the thoughts on implementing the rules and ways local governments can aid in enforcement of the rules.”
A Local Response
“We hear you. We hear you loud and we have made the first step that we can,” Jefferson County Commission Chairman Mitchell McGraw told those gathered at the meeting last week. He said that he had spoken to the area’s state representatives about the issue. Commissioner Johnny Davis, a member of the ACCG, said that within the next two weeks he would be in a legislative conference where this issue will be a top priority.
Commissioner Wayne Davis suggested the county could look at addressing the issue through its planning and zoning board and the Riverkeeper representative said that she has seen at least one neighboring county begin to attempt this.
County Attorney Dalton Dowdy said that complaints about these soil amendments have become a statewide issue. He went on to say that individuals who have been impacted by these applications near their homes could attempt to address the issue as a private action in civil court.
Within a couple of days of the meeting, one of the same groups spreading soil amendments on the western side of Jefferson County had moved equipment to a pasture between Keysville and Matthews on the eastern side.
“I definitely suggest taking pictures, documenting dates. Some people are taking legal action and all of that documentation is going to help them,” Nielsen said. “I think the most important thing anyone can do is press their local leaders to make a change at the local level.”
Until the Department of Agriculture decides to enact any changes to its soil amendment policies, citizens in Jefferson County will continue to buy candles, put out traps for flies and hope for a change in the wind.