BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The first signs of trouble at the Tyson Foods plant in Hanceville came in June when fisherman and neighbors started seeing and smelling thousands of dead fish in the Mulberry Fork River.
“Their pumping operation had a failure in it and spilled a bunch of wastewater into a tributary,” explains Nelson Brooke with environmental advocacy group Black Warrior Riverkeeper.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management believes the plant spilled about 220,000 gallons of wastewater into the river, killing more than 100,000 fish, and Brooke says we shouldn’t be surprised.
“ADEM does not put enough oomph or resources into its inspection program,” Brooke claims.
This is the plant’s fourth spill since 2011, though the company says a 2011 spill of 1.6 million gallons was the result of the April 27th tornadoes and didn’t face any fines. The same plant spilled 80,000 gallons of wastewater in 2015 and 900 gallons of sulfuric acid in 2016, for which ADEM fined them $50,000.
Despite that track record, ADEM’s records show it only inspected the site’s water security only 7 times since 2003 - 4 since 2014 with the last inspection coming last July.
In a scathing letter to ADEM commissioners dated July 2nd and published in the Alabama Daily News, ADEM Director Lance Lefluer questions the Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s commitment to civility, criticizes the media, and defends his agency saying they regulate 35,000 facilities across the state and says EPA data shows the rate of violations is among the lowest in the country.
Lefluer goes on to say "unfortunately today's media does not accurately report the information provided by ADEM."
“You will hear resources as well, but that’s all part of the will and politics. if you have an excuse--lack of funding, then that’s the easy way out,” argues Brooke. “But the reality is politics in Alabama are geared towards making it easy for polluters to come here, settle down and make money, by dumping their pollution burden on the public and not putting adequate resources in place to treat what they’re emitting before discharging it into our environment.”
What should smart and cost-effective protecting of your environment look like? Brooke says it should at least include a closer eye on plants with the potential to create a major impact, like the Tyson plant.
“Ideally every other month, until they can prove they can keep a clean house,” says Brooke. “And until they can prove that, there should be a close eye on them.”
In his letter, Lefleur promises ADEM will hold Tyson accountable for any violation of the clean water act, for fixing the environmental damage, and for the loss of natural resources.
Tyson declined a chance to comment for this story, but did resend this statement released shortly after the spill:
I can tell you representatives of River Valley Ingredients and owner Tyson Foods have met with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to discuss the accidental release of partially treated wastewater at Hanceville and the proactive measures the company has taken to address it.
Tyson Foods bought the plant in August 2018 and as part of work at the facility, a pipe provided and installed by an outside contractor failed and resulted in the accidental release of 220,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater.
The company stopped the accidental release and brought in an outside environmental contractor the same day to help with clean-up. This work has now been completed.
We deeply regret this incident and will continue to work with state officials and members of the community to evaluate conservation options. We are following up with the contractor that supplied the failed pipe and will continue our previously planned work to upgrade the facility.
The Sipsey Heritage Commission along with several local landowners are now suing several defendants including Tyson Farms, the plant itself, and the previous owner, asking for compensation for the loss of value to their property.
WBRC asked ADEM for a comment or an on camera interview, but we are still waiting for their reply.