Des Moines Register: 8 Iowa town ‘held hostage’ by rendering plant’s ‘rotting flesh’ stink

(Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

by Donnelle Eller | September 22, 2018

A northwest Iowa community has been blanketed with the smell of dead, rotting pigs.

The odor from a nearby rendering plant has driven fans from baseball fields and forced mourners to remain in their cars during graveside rites.

“It’s the most putrid smell I’ve ever smelled,” Estherville resident Sandy Clayton said.

Jeff Quastad, an Emmet County supervisor, said the odor is almost indescribable.

On many days, the plant smells like “warm dog food,” he said. But when it gets bad, it smells “like death, like rotting flesh.”

Quastad said he’s spent hours on the phone with angry, frustrated residents in the town of 6,400. “People are getting fed up,” he said.

The Emmet County Board of Supervisors agreed last week to pursue fines against the plant’s owner, Central Bi-Products, based in Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

A dozen trucks — each carrying up to 30,000 pounds of decomposing animals — recently sat in the hot sun outside the plant waiting to be processed, violating the company’s conditional use permit with the county, said Emmet County Supervisor John Pluth.

The company also has failed to take reasonable action to control odor leaving the plant as required under the permit, Quastad said.

Barb Bohm, the county assessor and zoning administrator, declined to provide details about the odor violations given pending legal action. County Attorney Doug Hansen did not respond to Register requests for an interview.

The county’s zoning ordinance says a company can be fined up to $750 per day for an initial violation, with fines up to $1,000 for repeat offenses.

The maximum penalty the county can receive in magistrate court is $5,000, both Pluth and Quastad said.

Plant owners promise improvements, but stink lingers

Bohm said Estherville residents have filed 315 odor complaints, mostly since May.

About that time, Central Bi-Products began bringing in more dead pigs from confinements outside Emmet County, Pluth and Quastad said.

A June fire in the boilers — used to cook carcasses — reduced the plant’s capacity to process the animals.

“That’s when the community started smelling like dead animals,” Pluth said, particularly when it was hot and humid with a southerly wind blowing the odor north across town.

Residents also complained that Central Bi-Products’ trucks were leaving dead pig parts and oozing liquid on highways leading into Estherville and in the plant’s yard, where trucks queue up.

Drivers leaving the plant would pick up decomposing goo on their truck tires and spread it on city roads, residents said.

Dan Hildebrandt, CEO of Farmers Union Industries, the parent of Central Bi-Products, did not return the Register’s calls for comment. He apologized to residents for the odor and spills at a public meeting with supervisors in July.

“We were aggressive with the rendering plant. We took on more work. We had a management change and fire,” said Hildebrandt, explaining the cause for the problems, the board’s minutes show.

The company told supervisors it’s constructing a larger building around the existing operation, giving it more room to unload animals inside the plant and wash trucks before they leave.

It’s also adding more scrubbers to clean the air before it leaves the plant, which Farmers Union Industries purchased in 2015.

Hildebrandt said the company would haul in fewer animals until the improvements were completed. “We cannot guarantee no odors altogether, but we will have much less,” he said, according to the minutes.

In addition to taking dead pigs from confinements in the region, Central Bi-Products takes offal — parts of the pig that consumers won’t eat — from Redwood Farms Meat Processors, a pork processing plant in Estherville, and other facilities.

That plant is owned by Farmers Union Industries, also based in Redwood Falls.

Pluth and Quastad say the company has mostly kept its promise to clean up animal spills around the yard and scaled back production.

And the company has paused operations during big community events, such as Sweet Corn Days in August.

But the pungent odor remains a problem.

‘Our town will get marked as a town that stinks’

Dan Lutat, who leads Iowa Lakes Community College’s wind and renewable energy program, said the company shouldn’t be operating until it has the capacity and equipment to do it correctly.

“The company should not be generating emissions that basically shut down the town,” Lutat said. The plant is “holding two-thirds of the county hostage” because residents are forced to close windows and stay inside.

“If you start with something that’s inadequate … you don’t start processing,” he said. “And then you certainly don’t take on more animals than you know you can process.”

Hildebrandt told residents in July that shutting down the Estherville plant would force a sister plant to also shut down, too, because it would no longer have “raw material.”

“This would have quite an impact on so many things,” Hildebrandt said at the meeting.

The holding company, which owns seven businesses, uses proteins, greases and other materials from the Estherville plant to make feed and industrial products.

“Nothing goes to waste,” the company says on its website. The rendering process keeps dead animals out of landfills, it says.

Lutat said he believes supervisors should take stronger action to require Central Bi-Products to meet the requirements of its conditional use permit.

“Everybody understands this is a vital service, but not at the detriment of everyone else,” he said.

Supervisors have been hesitant to take action against the company because it is making improvements. “I believe they’re trying,” Pluth said.

The company has said the changes should be completed this fall. But Lutat and others say they’re concerned the improvements will not be enough.

Quastad said the county could take stronger action in district court, but it would cost “big dollars” with questionable results.

“People have tried to sue rendering plants in different parts of the country and make them responsible and they don’t have a very good turnout,” he said.

“I have no desire to chase any business out of our county. But I also have no desire to keep one that harasses everyone in the county,” Quastad added.

The odor could be chasing off businesses, too.

Quastad told residents in July that a business visiting Estherville for a possible expansion “was not impressed” with the odor. Pluth said the business hasn’t yet decided where it will locate its operation.

Roy Gage, who owns an auto repair shop, said the town has invested in a wellness center, trails, ballparks and other amenities to attract residents — work that’s being undone by the rendering plant odor.

“Our town will get marked as a town that stinks, when we’re working all the time to make it better,” Gage said.

Odors have plagued the town since the plant opened a decade ago, he said, but it’s become more intense this summer.

Families leaving church run to their cars to avoid the smell. Visitors to baseball or football games leave or complain about the smell. Teachers say kids struggle to focus on learning when the plant’s odor reaches classrooms.

“It’s embarrassing when other people come to town,” said Clayton, a fitness enthusiast who frequently walks and bikes around the city. “The stench overtakes everything. It becomes the main topic of conversation.

“We all have a right to clean, fresh air. We deserve better than we’re getting.”

Lutat said Iowa Lakes draws college students from around the nation and globe. But they return home talking about Estherville’s smell. That’s especially troubling for a rural town that’s fighting to keep and attract skilled workers and businesses.

“It impacts businesses. It impacts residents. It impacts whether people want to live here,” Lutat said. “Who wants to move to town if you can’t sit on your porch and enjoy a cup of coffee?”

State oversight

The Iowa Department of Agriculture oversees rendering plant licensing and inspections.

Iowa’s laws do not cover odor, a state spokesman said, so it’s not part of the agency’s inspection process. The agency says it’s received no complaints about Central Bi-Products in Estherville. Iowa has 24 licensed rendering plants.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says it’s investigating runoff from the plant into a tile system that drains into the West Fork of the Des Moines River.

The discharge “is consistent with wastewater” from the plant, and has appeared periodically since winter, the state says.

A nearby landowner reported the discharge in his water, which was used for drinking and to water cattle. The state is considering enforcement action. It often includes fines and action to resolve problems.