Rural communities hopeful Kemp change to state soil amendment law will curb stink 

Trucks line up on a former hog farm in Taliaferro County to unload soil amendment. (Credit: Savannah Riverkeeper)

After seven years and millions of dollars in restoration, Heritage GA opened its door last month to those seeking solitude and a chance to commune with nature. But the constant presence of trucks hauling a noxious concoction of waste byproducts from poultry processing plants threatens to ruin those plans.

The historic Catholic retreat sitting on 200 acres near Sharon is meant to be an economic boon and tourist attraction for Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”) County, a poor, mostly Black county of 1,600, situated 90 miles east of Atlanta. 

“It's a very historic, sacred site. Our business is being threatened by this soil amendment. It's [the retreat] been a major financial investment in the county and in the state and it’s really helping,” Betsy Orr, chief executive officer of Purification Properties LLC, which restored the retreat —  a tribute to the first Catholic settlers who arrived in Georgia in 1790.

The sludge, known as soil amendment, is being transported to a hog farm about 1.5 miles from Heritage. The former hog farm was cited by the state Environmental Protection Division after residents complained that the waste being spread on the farm had polluted a nearby creek. The property owner resolved the consent order requiring him to pay $5,000, mark the buffer area on the farm and ensure no soil amendment is applied to that area, according to EPD spokesperson Sara Lips.

The Heritage property includes a commercial building, barn, cottages, prayer spaces, walking trails and the oldest Catholic Cemetery in Georgia. Orr predicts that if the smell from the former hog farm reaches Heritage, “it's going to wreck our business.”

On Monday, Orr breathed an inward sigh of relief when she learned that Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law that could prove fortuitous for landowners and other businesses battling problems created by soil amendment.

The new law adds a provision to the state Soil Amendment Act of 1976 that stops companies from hauling or receiving soil amendment if they’ve been notified by EPD to resolve an outstanding dispute or complaint. The notification is known as a consent order. The new law is effective July 1.

“It's good because the state and the Agriculture Department have really prevented that kind of bill from being enacted because they say that it's to the farmer’s benefit to be able to use the soil amendments,” Orr said.

Orr’s comments are a common refrain from business owners and families with properties in rural Georgia who sit near soil amendment sites and who complain of vultures, hordes of flies and unbearable smells floating across their properties.

“The problem is a lot of the soil amendments are causing pollution. They are stinky, nasty wastewater and other products,” Orr said. “Sometimes it is not even what they are allowed to dump. Finally, they have passed this amendment, and I hope they enforce it. Some of the things that these people are dumping are … ruining the landowners around them and the state has got to start caring about that.” 

Doug Abramson, a retired corporate lawyer who lives in Wilkes County where a soil amendment runoff killed 1,700 fish in the Little River July 2022, called the new law “a step in the right direction.”

“Many counties throughout the state are encountering problems with sludge, improper dumping, and [other] soil amendment issues,” said Abramson, who along with his wife Susan have been working to address the problem for about a decade. “This [new law] is at least a recognition that there are problems out there. I do think the state could do better. The Department of Agriculture could do better but it is a step in the right direction.”

Have questions? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].