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Kitchen table convos from the Gulf Coast South. 

The South loves to cook chicken: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken livers. Thrown in the barbecue pit and dressed in a thick serving of Texas-style BBQ sauce. Fried in a pan and served with a side of coleslaw, or a baked potato, or greens. For all its culinary nuance, chicken is hard food to mess up.

The process of getting chickens from the farms to our kitchens, however, is a mess—a big, stinky mess.

In North Alabama, rural residents are tired of worrying about what that mess means for their land and their families. For the past few years, Marshall County resident and longtime industrial agriculture worker Julie Lay has been advocating against the usage of “chicken sludge”—a biosolid derived from sewage wastewater treatment—for fertilization. Not only is it an awful-smelling substance, but it’s also likely bad for the soil, and possibly bad for the people who live off that soil. Reports from when the issue first started bubbling to the surface claim that a layer of leftover processed chicken fat and feathers was still visible after each application. Lay said her own family got sick shortly after her neighbors first began using it.

More importantly, residents are concerned about the impact it will have on their water quality. 

Turns out, Lay wasn’t alone. Folks in Alabama have fought against the practice for a decade, but the state has no regulations for wastewater sludge.

Hopefully you don’t lose your appetite after reading this week’s interview. Don’t worry, no chicken. I’m cooking up oysters Rockefeller this week. The recipe is below. Send me a photo if you happen to make it, too.

More from Scalawag on the South's chicken industry:

COVID-19 hit Arkansas poultry workers at an 'alarming rate' as state and industry officials looked on

Xander Peters: Could you briefly walk me through your dilemma with Alabama's poultry industry? 

Julie Lay: I worked in industrial agriculture for the majority of 16 years. I graduated from Auburn with my degree in animal science. Out of college, I decided to start working for the poultry industry, and in industrial ag later on. But what happened is one day my husband called me. I was on my way home. I was the normal working mom, like most American moms, and I have two little boys. I picked them up. We're on our way home, and my husband called and said, “Hey, somebody stirred up something awful over here, some sort of fertilizer.”

It was alarming that my husband called me. He's a firefighter for our town. Smells and odors don't really bother him. I worked in ag my whole life. I've been around all kinds of different smells. When I hit the top of the mountain, the odor was... I don't even have a good word to describe it. It was just breathtaking. It was awful. My eyes were burning. 

Later on, I found out that my neighbors got sick. We got sick from this, an upper respiratory infection. So, we pull into the driveway. I rush my children into the house. I’m angry. I called the man who leases the land next to us. I start asking him questions. Well, he's not answering any of my questions, except for the basics. He told me it was poultry wastewater sludge, that it was food-grade, organic, and it had phosphorus potassium in it for the soil. I asked him if they took soil samples. He said no. After a variety of different questions, every answer he gave me was red flags. 

First of all, the poultry industry does not have a byproduct that is food grade [or fit for human consumption when it comes in contact with food]. That was my first big red flag. It’s definitely not organic. That was my second red flag. Then when I asked him who regulates this, he couldn't answer. He gives me the number of the company. I called the company, and they couldn't tell me what regulations they follow. So, as I started this journey, I started digging. I found people that had dealt with this since 2013, had to live with the smell since 2013, that have been trying to contact anybody, from local politicians that might help all the way up to Erin Brockovich, and everybody in between. This company continues to spread and hold this stuff in ponds. 

I called the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). I figured they're the ones that can help. They couldn't tell me what regulations this company follows. I found out that EPA has regulations for the application of municipal wastewater sludge. While I was reading these regulations, I found that there was a loophole in there for these types of industrial byproducts—poultry wastewater sludge. 

Come to find out my state had absolutely no regulations on poultry wastewater sludge. They could apply wherever, whenever, however they wanted to. The only thing that they couldn't do is they couldn't violate the Clean Water Act.

XP: Which is pretty flexible as is. 

JL: It is, very. It's almost laughable. 

I was shocked. But it just so happen the same summer they applied for this, ADEM was considering regulations, because of all the hoopla that happened about the poop-train coming from New York. They were bringing in trainloads of poop from New York–municipality waste–to apply to fields or land in Alabama. It was awful. It was sitting on the railroad track. What happened was set there during the summer, and the odor was just wafting to all of the neighborhoods. 

So, they were starting to write those regulations. I read through the regulations, and they were absolutely not science-based. For instance, it takes the word of industry on whether or not the spoilage is safe for land approval, or for land application. They require absolutely no testing. As long as the industry accepts that there's no hazardous material in the waste, as defined by ADEM, then they can land-apply. 

 (See also: The fight for worker rights in North Carolina's meat-processing plants, in Scalawag) 

XP: Are there any new regulations on the books since that public uproar?

JL: Yes. There's been some regulations passed. That was an interesting process because during the time this happened, they had proposed regulations and they were hearing public comment. I got to participate in this whole process, and I also got to read in-depth industry letters trying to sway ADEM to lessen the proposed regulations that had been written. For example, the sludge companies wanted to remove the term “putrescible odors.” ADEM had written a regulation that stated that any byproduct that was applied to land could not be putrescible, which would completely eliminate what they put out here next to our house, because it fit that definition. 

XP: Were the companies successful in their lobbying efforts? 

JL: Yes. 

XP: Where do you think this leaves y’all as citizens? It seems like you’re taking a backseat to corporate interests. 

JL: That's how we feel. We feel that no one is listening to us. That they have the interest of industry over the citizens that actually live in these areas. I've reached out to my local politicians. I have one in particular that to this day still hasn't answered my emails to set up a meeting with him. But this is what I always say–it's not me against the poultry industry. I realize that people like to eat chicken, including me. I like to eat chicken, too. There's a lot of people that depend on the poultry industry, I understand that. But there has to be a balance with the poultry industry. They cannot destroy our natural resources for their gain. 

I like to compare it to the coal industry in West Virginia. They went into West Virginia. They built cities based around coal–grocery stores, company stores, these communities became dependent on the coal industry. Then when the coal ran out, they pulled out. Is that the same thing that's going to happen here once the water from the springs runs out? Where are we going to be left? We're destroying our land. There's no clean soil. It's up to us citizens to report anything that we see and it's up to our politicians and our legislature to help protect what we've got here, because we have something special in Alabama.

More climate extremes ahead for Galveston County, experts agree

The Galveston Daily News & Inside Climate News, Matt deGrood, & Bob Berwyn 


“The science has long been clear that our changing climate will lead to more flooding and hotter summer temperatures. But might climate change also lead to other, less expected extreme weather, including sudden hard freezes in places like Texas, with increasing frequency? Experts think the answer is yes.”

Amid climate change, controversial $2.5B oil terminal moves forward in Plaquemines Parish

The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, Halle Parker 


“Export terminal would be built on slave cemetery, emit 566,466 tons of greenhouse gases per year.”

Ecotourism could help the ‘Amazon of North America’ recover. Here’s how.

National Geographic, Jacqueline Kehoe


“Louisiana’s wetlands are being lost to sea-level rise, leaving eerie ‘ghost forests.’ Where does ecotourism fit into the recovery plan?” 

The multibillion-dollar question: What will it take to fix the South’s broken water systems?

Southerly, Carly Berlin


“The winter storm revealed the fragility of rural and urban water systems. President Biden’s new infrastructure plan could help improve them–but it’s only a start.” 

Forgotten camps, living history

The Bitter Southerner, Jason Christian


“Reckoning with the legacy of Japanese internment in the South.” 

Texans with disabilities were left to fend for themselves during winter storm Uri

The Texas Observer, Amal Ahmed


“Emergency planning often overlooks the needs of the most vulnerable during natural disasters.”

Oysters Rockefeller

The Ingredients: 
  • 12 raw oysters in the shell
  • White onion 
  • Garlic 
  • Spinach 
  • Cream cheese
  • Romano cheese 
  • Panko (substitute with bread crumbs) 
The Steps: 
  • Shuck and clean oysters.
  • Place cleaned half shells on a bed of rock salt.
  • Place oysters on shells.
  • In a separate pan, sauté onion, garlic, and spinach. Add a dollop of cream cheese, half and half, and romano cheese and stir until smooth.
  • Top the oysters with your mixture. Sprinkle a bit of panko and garnish with bacon, if you're feeling fancy.
  • Bake in the oven at 350 degrees until oysters are plump and panko is browned. It should take anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of your oysters. 
  • Serve and slurp.
So long, till next week, y'all. 
I hope you got enough to eat. There’ll be enough to go around next week and the week after.

—Xander

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