‘This is heartbreaking for us’: River residents heavy-hearted; Tyson facing lawsuits

The June 6 Tyson spill resulted in a massive fish kill. (Photo courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

HANCEVILLE, Ala.  – On Thursday, June 6, approximately 220,000 gallons of effluent (liquid waste or sewage) were spilled by the Tyson Foods, Inc./River Valley Ingredients plant (formerly American Proteins) in Hanceville into the Dave Young Creek, which flows to the Mulberry Fork. The spill led to a “massive fish kill” and a warning against recreational use of the Mulberry Fork. It was the plant’s fourth environmental incident affecting the Mulberry Fork since 2011. In an effort to keep the public informed about circumstances surrounding the spill, The Tribune is seeking updates from as many involved parties as possible.

Sipsey Heritage Commission announces lawsuit, cancels river race

The Sipsey Heritage Commission, which describes itself as “dedicated to promoting the unique history, culture, and natural resources of Walker County,” announced Tuesday that it is filing suit against Tyson over the spill, and that it retained Jasper attorney Jud Allen.  

In a note to The Tribune, the Commission’s Martha Salomaa, who owns property and a cabin on the Mulberry Fork, shared, “Regarding our lawsuit against Tyson, Sipsey Heritage Commission stands with our community in pursuing justice for our river and our people.”

In a phone call Wednesday, Salomaa said, “Tyson is not going to stop dumping just because we ask them to.  Clearly, they have an issue . . . Tyson has a very poor environmental record.  And, if you consider yourself an environmentalist or if you don’t, that’s the water that all of Walker County drinks out of, that’s the water that Birmingham city drinks out of.  The Birmingham city intake is just a few miles down from the one that Walker County does their outtake from.  That’s all of our water.

“What are our water treatment plants having to do to make that water potable?  How much is that costing?  That’s going to be passed on to the consumer, eventually.  That’s one thing.

“Another thing is, I grew up with this river, and they’re not going to take it.  There are too many people.  That’s what we do, you know: my family and I, different members, we are on that river usually two days a week.  There are other people who are on that river every day, every day.  And that the river–when I want to be on a river, that’s the one I want to be on.  And at this point, they’ve made it where that is impossible.  They’re going to have to change their ways.”

Tuesday evening, The Tribune spoke with Allen, who shared, “I live on the river, as well, and it’s a personal thing to me, as well.”

He went on to say, “I am representing some people that live on the river, and also people that- I don’t know if you’ve looked at ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management) complaints, but there’s some people that live in a little bit closer proximity to the plant, and maybe not actually on the river.  But they are experiencing a smell, and I see these complaints, and they’re described as rotting animals- not fish- but dead animals and wet dog food, and they say it’s permeating their car upholstery; it’s in their house, they gag. I’m also representing some of them.  When this came out, it kind of opened a door for other people that I’ve just found out that have had problems in the past, as well.”

The suit is actually a collection of individual suits, not currently a class action.  

Said Allen, “Anybody’s welcome to join that has special damages like this.”

In its announcement, the Sipsey Heritage Commission said, “If you want to join with us and others in our community, you can contact (Allen) at 205-221-5601.”

Allen has not set a specific schedule but said he hopes to file the case within the next week.

Sipsey Fork River Race

The Commission also sponsors the annual Sipsey Fork River Race, which was scheduled for this coming Saturday.  The race, set to begin at the Alabama Highway 69 bridge crossing and move down to the Sipsey’s junction with the Mulberry- known as “The Forks”- has been canceled.  

On Sunday, June 16, the Commission issued this statement on the race’s website www.kayaksipsey.com/blog:

“It is with deep regret that we announce that we have been forced to cancel the 3rd annual Sipsey Fork River Race.  As many of you already know, the Mulberry Fork has suffered a massive fish kill due to a spill from the Tyson Foods/ American Protein, River Valley Plant in Hanceville, Alabama.  The spill and all it carried with it was pulled at least one mile up the Sipsey Fork.  Originally, we believed enough water would pass through both forks to dilute our waters to safe levels.  Yesterday, we took water samples and submitted them to an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recognized company.  Today we learned that the levels of bacteria were several times the acceptable level for human recreation.  It would be irresponsible for us to continue with the race under these circumstances.  On June 22 at 8 a.m., we will be at the boat ramp behind T&R Grocery at The Forks.  People who have ordered T-shirts may pick them up there.  We will also have contact information so that you may speak up regarding the assault on our river.”

Friday, June 14, the Commission published water testing results from Birmingham-based Sutherland Environmental Company, an environmental testing laboratory certified by both the ADEM and U.S. EPA.  Water samples from the junction of the Sipsey and Mulberry Forks, where the race was to finish, were tested for three specific contaminants, each of which- according to the report- was supposed to occur in an amount not exceeding 200 units per 100 ml of tested water.  The findings were reported as:

  • E. coli – 5,100 units per 100 ml
  • Total coliform – 23,600 units per 100 ml
  • Fecal coliform – 14,400 units per 100 ml

Salomaa shared, “We are very disappointed that we had to cancel the Sipsey Fork River Race.  However, once we had the water tested, we knew we could not jeopardize the health of our racers or their families.”

The Commission is also gathering stories and information from people who live around the affected waterways.  On Monday, it requested: “Do you live and/or have property on the Mulberry Fork? Has the Tyson spill affected you? We’d like to hear your story. We will not share your story without your permission. Email us: sipseyheritagecommission@gmail.com or leave us a voicemail at 205-265-1175.”

Tyson releases updated statement

Last Friday, Tyson Foods’ Public Relations Manager Derek Burleson issued this statement:

“Representatives of River Valley Ingredients and owner Tyson Foods met with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management Thursday to discuss the recent 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 this week reported that as part of significant upgrade to 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. This unfortunately led to a loss of fish in nearby streams because of reduced oxygen levels in the water.

“The company stopped the accidental release and brought in an outside environmental contractor the same day to help with clean-up. These efforts included collection of fish affected by the release. This work has now been completed and oxygen levels in the affected streams have returned to normal.

“We deeply regret this incident and will continue to work with state officials and members of the community to evaluate remediation options. We will follow up with the contractor that supplied the failed pipe and also continue our previously planned work to upgrade the facility.”

Controversy over amount of spill; DCNR division chief speaks

Shortly after the spill occurred, a Birmingham news outlet claimed that the spill involved up to 800,000 gallons of wastewater, saying that the number was given by staff of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries division.  A later official statement issued by ADEM listed the amount at approximately 220,000 gallons.

William “Nick” Nichols, chief of fisheries for DCNR’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, reported to The Tribune Wednesday morning that his department made no official statement on the amount of the spill, nor would such a determination fall within its jurisdiction.

Said Nichols, “We are fisheries biologists; we’re out there counting dead fish. Our guys are just gathering up what information they can get as they’re doing their investigation.  The amount of material spilled is really, that’s between ADEM and the plant that caused the spill.”

The chief also shared that his division is still analyzing data from this and two other unrelated spills across the state, and that final reports will take some time to produce, saying, “We’re working on those reports, and once we’re confident we’ve got our information and our data correct and cross-checked, then that’s when those things’ll go public.”

Black Warrior Riverkeeper unhappy with sampling, reporting

Wednesday, the nonprofit advocacy group Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s Nelson Brooke did not outright reject ADEM’s official number, but did express skepticism over the officially reported amount, saying, “It seems like the 220,000 estimate is a rather small number, small volume, for the magnitude of the harm that was done out there.”

Brooke shared that he was dissatisfied with ADEM’s water sampling performed last Thursday, saying, “That sampling did not sample downriver of Cordova, where the spill had migrated to by that point.  So that’s why we released our statement on Friday the 14th, saying that, while ADEM had found that bacteria was within acceptable limits upriver of Cordova, there was no data for downriver.  We were still telling everybody that was asking us to be cautious and not swim in cloudy brown water that looked like it was muddy, stinky or had dead fish in it.

“And the same advice continues, with or without the Tyson spill.  If we get rains and the river gets real muddy, or it’s not raining and the river gets real muddy, then those are not the right conditions for swimming.  That’s the kind of river conditions that can give rise to elevated bacteria levels that are unsafe.”

Brooke also talked about Riverkeeper’s recent meeting with Tyson officials, saying, “They stood by their 220,000 gallon estimation of wastewater spilled, and they also stood by their June 12 announcement that the river was safe, and verified for us that they only based that statement or conclusion on dissolved oxygen data, which is only relevant for whether or not the river’s safe for fish to survive.

“I think they probably understand, at this point, we pointed out to them a pretty short-sighted announcement, which didn’t match up with what ADEM was saying, and didn’t match up with what we were saying based on the bacteria results.”

Overall, Brooke concluded, “Just generally, we’re kind of unhappy with the level of public notice that went out from Tyson and ADEM in the beginning, and we’re also quite unhappy with the limited amount of information and data that’s been shared by the responsible company and the investigating agencies, so that it’s just leaving the public with a lot of unanswered questions. I think that’s probably just going to continue, because the way they do these investigations is they go out and DCNR counts the fish and puts an economic valuation on the fish killed, and ADEM is responsible for investigating the spill that caused the fish kill, determining who’s responsible for it, and assessing any penalties and proposed fixes to the problem. It’s uncommon for either agency to release their final investigative reports, findings or conclusions in a timely manner.  It usually takes multiple weeks, if not months.”

Dead river

Multiple observers who live on or have recently visited the Mulberry or Sipsey Forks have commented on the lack of life on the water.

One observer, who visited the river last Thursday, in a comment on the Sipsey Heritage Commission’s Facebook page, reported, “Nobody hanging around, nobody fishing.  I saw what I thought was one fish jump down the river a piece.  That’s it.  It’s surreal.”

Another commenter reported visiting the river on Sunday and later reported seeing “thick, foamy, green scum that I have never in my 47 years on this river have ever seen.  It looked like the stagnant water of a farm pond.  There were also areas with such a thick film that looked like a big sheet of plastic on top of the water.  Normally this time of year I see stripe and bass feeding in the evening.  The only sign of life I saw was a small wake of a dying fish in the middle of the river.”

Allen shared, “A lot of people rely on this river.  That’s why they live (here).  And a lot of them, they can’t use it, now.  I mean, they’re afraid their kids will get in it, or their dogs.  I know one person was worried his dog had been in the river, you know.  But mostly, I talk to people. They said, ‘We haven’t seen a fish since the kill, unless they’re dead.”

Salomaa shared, “Up where we have property, we have not seen anything alive.  We’ve seen one turtle.  By Thursday, there was a very, like a strange algae- and keep in mind: I’ve always been on the river-there was a strange algae that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like it before, which makes me wonder if this has killed what eats the algae.

“Later, there’s like a film that almost looks like a kind of grease that’s gathered along the banks, and that sort of thing.  But we’ve seen nothing alive.  The birds are not there; I’m sure they’ve gone elsewhere.  We saw a heron in a pond instead of on the river.  But in the water, nothing is really moving, except for we did see that one turtle.  So, right now, it just does not look good right now.

“And that’s not something I want to say because I want to make Tyson look bad.  This is heartbreaking for us.”


Background reading: www.cullmantribune.com/2019/06/14/tyson-oxygen-levels-in-affected-streams-have-returned-to-normal

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W.C. Mann