Holding your nose when your hands are tied; Local pols complain about stinky state rules

Dead chicks still in their shells dumped on a farm in Oglethorpe County. (photo by Georgia Environmental Protection Division)

County commission chairmen across north Georgia are speaking with one voice about a state-approved practice they say is harming their communities.

It deals with the often overwhelming stench that comes from dumping animal processing waste — largely from poultry plants — on farmland, a process known as soil amendments.

"Once you smell it, it’s unlike anything you’ve smelled before," explained Madison County Commission chairman Todd Higdon.

It was so bad in Warren County, a farm field that put down soil amendment was quickly covered in flies and buzzards.

"We don’t know how to stop it," said Warren County Commission Chairman John Graham.

Elbert County Chairman Lee Vaughn (L) and Madison County Chairman Todd Higdon want more control over where soil amendments are dumped. Right now they have none.

State law provides specific protection for where soil amendments are used — forbidding counties from any regulation.

The result? Soil amendments are being spread on farms near neighborhoods or along waterways throughout rural Georgia.

No wonder in the debate over how best to grow, this has become a growing stink.

"They’re getting paid to dump a product that somebody else doesn’t want," pointed out Lee Vaughn, chairman of the Elbert County Commission. "I call it industrial waste."

Each chairman said soil amendment is the Number 1 complaint they get from their constituents.

"Why they got to go so far to these rural counties?" asked Sam Moore, chairman of the Wilkes County Commission. "It makes no sense."

In June, a soil amendment spill at a defunct dairy farm in Wilkes County is blamed for the death of nearly 1,700 fish in a nearby river.

In 2020, another spill led to a $5,000 fine for a farmer in Hall County.

And in Oglethorpe County, another farmer had to pay $21,000 after state inspectors discovered "feet, heads, and other body parts of very young chickens" piled up on land near a neighborhood.

Donna Blanton’s neighborhood.

"It was very wrong for the company to deliver it," she said. "And it was wrong for the farmer to even consider putting it out on the ground."

Donna Blanton took this picture of waste tankers driving by her home to a nearby farm. She said the deliveries were constant, the stench often overwhelming. 

Blanton watched tankers roll constantly up and down her road. She had no idea what they were dumping until she saw the pictures from the EPD.

"But this smell never left," she complained. "It smells like death."

So Blanton did something few others have tried. She and her neighbors sued the farmer and all those companies involved in the dumping of that soil amendment.

The case is pending. In court filings, each defendant denied doing anything wrong.

Chris Nidel is the neighbors’ attorney. He’s sued soil amendment providers operating in other states.

"What I’ve seen in Georgia is just disposal," he said.  "It’s just a way to get rid of this stuff."

"It’s not right for someone not to be able to enjoy their own yard," Blanton pointed out. "If you can’t have a birthday party for a grandchild or your own kid because of the flies and the smell. They need to find another solution."

Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) sponsored the latest soil amendment bill to provide clearer rules. It does not provide for any local control.

Instead, state lawmakers moved to tighten the rules so local government could not regulate "industrial byproducts."

The sponsor of that bill? Senator Tyler Harper, now the Republican nominee for Georgia agriculture commissioner.

Harper did not respond to repeated attempts for comment. 

"Farming is very important in the state of Georgia," said chairman Vaughn. "And so farmers have a lot of legal power. And so we can’t regulate anything that’s approved by the Department of Agriculture."

The Department of Agriculture does require the provider of any soil amendments be registered, keep records of what they’re hauling and self-test the soil before and after to monitor for any potential harm.

They’re also supposed to cover up the liquid within an hour of putting it on a field.

This company sprayed the soil amendment -- liquid food processing waste -- on a Madison County field. It's unclear whether leaving the mixture exposed follows state rules.

The FOX 5 I-Team watched one company till up the soil, then spray the soil amendment on top, leaving the smelly substance exposed.

The driver did not till it under. The mixture left a powerful smell.

The Department of Agriculture did not respond to multiple requests to comment on whether what we saw followed state rules.

"They don’t know what it is," complained Oglethorpe County Commission Chairman Jay Paul. "And WE can’t tell you exactly what it is!"

No one tracks where soil amendments are being dumped or limits how much a farmer can accept.

The proposed rules are currently open for public comment until August 15. The public can click here to read the rules and add any thoughts.

But commission chairmen throughout north Georgia fear their hands will always be tied, frustrating because they know they’re going to need them to hold their nose.

"If a landfill was coming into my county you can bet my 30,000 voters would have a say in it," pointed out chairman Higdon. "But today on this, they don’t have a say."