Walker County residents protest potential McLemore Cove chicken processing plant

Ruth Almeter speaks alongside Blackwell Smith, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, about not wanting a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in McLemore Cove Thursday outside the 1591 Broad Street plant in Chattanooga.
Ruth Almeter speaks alongside Blackwell Smith, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, about not wanting a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in McLemore Cove Thursday outside the 1591 Broad Street plant in Chattanooga.

In their latest effort to pressure Pilgrim's Pride against moving to their Georgia community, members of the McLemore Cove Preservation Society protested outside the chicken processing plant at Broad and 17th streets Thursday afternoon, arguing a plant could pollute the local environment.

Blackwell Smith, a longtime resident of the cove, criticized the company for past transgressions. In particular, he pointed to a settlement that a U.S. District Court judge approved in January, after Environment America sued Pilgrim's Pride in Live Oak, Florida. The company allegedly dumped more pollutants in the Suwannee River than its permit allowed.

Company officials agreed to upgrade that plant with new wells and some systems, which are supposed to prevent a bulk of chemicals from pouring into the water. The company also agreed to pay $1.4 million.

Smith believes a similar incident could occur in the cove, located in a rural stretch of southern Walker County, just west of downtown LaFayette where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet. Smith was not a fan of the Barwick-Archer carpet mill or Reichhold Chemical plant that used to operate in the area.

"It's a beautiful community," he said during a news conference Wednesday. "We've gotten rid of our big industry, and now we'd like to not have any more, especially a chicken plant."

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for the company, responded to the environmental criticism in a statement, telling the Times Free Press, "Pilgrim's is committed to being a sustainable partner in each of the communities where we are privileged to live and work. ... Pilgrim's continues to invest in a more sustainable future for our team members, customers, and consumers around the world."

From 2010 to 2015, he added, the company reduced its water use intensity 34 percent. It aims to drop its use by another 10 percent by 2020.

Concerning a move, Bruett has previously told the Times Free Press, "We have made no decisions that would impact the Chattanooga facility, our team members, or our growers who support the facility."

Thus far, no county official has addressed the allegation of a new plant coming in. And Drennon Crutchfield, who owns an abandoned plant in the cove where residents believe Pilgrim's Pride will move, has declined to comment on whether he is negotiating a sale to the company.

Nevertheless, the preservation society filed a lawsuit against the county last week, calling any potential chicken processing plant a nuisance a judge must block. The preservation society, a nonprofit, argued a plant would bring increased truck traffic, light pollution, noise and pungent smells. The county has not yet filed an official response to the lawsuit.

But Commissioner Shannon Whitfield criticized members of the society for attempting to stop new business, in general. He and Walker County Economic and Community Development Director Robert Wardlaw have said they can't talk about any potential deals in the early stages, as companies demand nondisclosure agreements while they feel out the community.

Whitfield called the lawsuit "nonsense" based on rumors. The filing has sparked debate among residents.

Debbie Crane, who lives in the Center Post community across Pigeon Mountain from the cove, said the county needs more jobs for residents. She also does not believe residents have the right to block a private business transaction, assuming Pilgrim's Pride obeys environmental regulations.

Crane's family raised chickens for two companies, including Pilgrim's Pride, from the mid-1980s through 2010. They raised about 190,000 chickens at a time, keeping them until they grew to about six pounds. She said company employees would then pick the chickens up and drive them to the Chattanooga plant. Her family left the business because they did not want to continue paying for necessary upgrades to their six chicken houses.

"I just feel like Walker County needs something," she said. "If this is a step to bring jobs, then I'm for it."

Travis Middleton, of Flintstone, Georgia, believes residents should support Whitfield and Wardlaw's vision to move the county forward, including new businesses. He said Whitfield has tried to make the local government more transparent than it was under former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, moving public meetings from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. so residents can attend and publishing an agenda online in advance.

Middleton does not appreciate the criticism that Whitfield has not been open enough about potential business deals.

In Chattanooga, meanwhile, some residents hope the plant will leave.

James Holland, president of the Southside Cowart Place Neighborhood Association, said members of the community have long complained about the "horrid stench" flowing from the plant.

"I'm not sure it creates the unique Chattanooga way of life that the city wants to be known for," he said.

In 2012, River City Co. sponsored an urban design challenge, and planners presented a proposal that would call for Pilgrim's Pride to move locations. At the time, the company's complex manager in Chattanooga told the Times Free Press the business had no plans to leave after 50 years in the area.

The company employs about 1,175 people, according to the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. Amy Donahue, director of marketing and communications at River City Co., said the group does not want to see jobs eliminated. However, the plant's current location is no longer a good fit for the area that has developed around it, from soccer games at Finley Stadium to restaurants on Main Street.

"With the growth of the Southside, especially with residential development, a chicken processing plant doesn't make the most sense any more," she said. " That's the tale of cities, as old as history."

Developer John Murphy, who is building a 158-unit apartment across 17th Street from the plant, told the Times Free Press in 2015 he believed Pilgrim's Pride would eventually leave. On Thursday, he said he still believes that will happen. But the presence of the plant - and its smell - did not deter him from building on the Southside.

At the news conference Thursday, McLemore Cove Preservation Society President Ruth Almeter said her community was not a better fit.

"It's not going to be good for the cove," she said. "And it's not going to be good for the county."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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