Inside the Tyson/Mulberry Fork lawsuit: Who did what, who’s asking for what

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At the confluence of the rivers Saturday, June 22, 2019, the Sipsey Fork showed signs of life, while the Mulberry Fork remained still and silent. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

JASPER, Ala. – On Friday, the Sipsey Heritage Commission and Chandler Holdings, along with 40 individual property owners along the Mulberry and Sipsey Forks of the Black Warrior River, filed suit against Tyson Farms, Inc., River Valley Ingredients LLC, RVI Hanceville plant manager Jason Spann, American Proteins, Inc. and Hydraservice, Inc. The lawsuit stems from the Thursday, June 6, 2019 incident in which 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.

Plaintiffs

The complaint was filed in Walker County by Edward Jackson of the Jasper-based law firm of Jackson, Fikes & Brakefield, and Judson Allen of Laird & Robertson, also based in Jasper, on behalf of two corporate entities and 40 individual property owners:

  • Sipsey Heritage Commission – An organization that describes itself as “dedicated to improving the health and well-being of our community by improving access to our natural resources.” It promotes the history, culture, and natural features of the region of the Sipsey and Mulberry Forks.  Martha Salomaa is the current President.
  • Chandler Holdings, LLC – A Jasper-based real estate development domestic corporation whose members include Hershel Chandler, Sr., Hershel Chandler, Jr. and Anna Chandler.  Bogner Chandler is the listed agent.
  • Marnice Aaron
  • Sidney Aaron
  • Neal Ballenger
  • Ann Burke
  • Michael Cates
  • Joseph Christianson
  • Lisa Christianson
  • Robert Earl Clifton
  • Billy Joey Dill
  • Susan Donaldson
  • Ed Frazier
  • Norma Jane Green
  • Ricky Hall
  • John Lively
  • Linda Lively
  • Billy Parson
  • Chris Peed
  • Kevin Perkins
  • Roger Perkins
  • Jimmy Phillips
  • Michael D. Phillips
  • Regina Phillips
  • Iris Ramey
  • Robert Ramey
  • Fred Rutkowski, Sr.
  • Rita Rutkowski
  • Kari Salomaa
  • Martha Salomaa
  • Betty Shed
  • Don Smith
  • Chiyako Starnes
  • Norman Starnes
  • Rex Starnes
  • Toby Stover
  • Paul Wigley
  • Kerri Wigley
  • Westin Wilborn
  • A.C. Williams
  • Mechelle Williams
  • Dennis Yglesias

According to the complaint, “The Plaintiffs, besides the Sipsey Heritage Commission, can be described in two categories with one being those plaintiffs who own property on the Mulberry River and Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River or who live and own property in close proximity to the Mulberry River. These Plaintiffs fear to go outside, use the river, fish in the river, or let their animals use the river because of these spills. Some of these Plaintiffs use the river as a means for living and fear such way of life has been altered forever costing them money and happiness.

“The other category of Plaintiffs are those who are affected by the horrible smell of the River Valley Ingredients plant.  The smell is so regular and potent that it has affected these Plaintiff’s daily lives, affected their quiet use and enjoyment of their property, and cause them fear, discomfort, and embarrassment.”

Defendants

The complaint names five specific defendants along with 40 fictitious defendants (essentially place holders that will allow the attorneys to name additional defendants whose role in the spill may not yet have been discovered).

  • Tyson Farms, Inc. – Listed as a “foreign corporation with its principal place of business located in the state of North Carolina.” The corporation is a subsidiary of Tyson Foods, Inc., and manages production of chicken products in several southeastern states.  It is listed in the complaint as owning and managing the Hanceville plant at which the spill occurred.
  • River Valley Ingredients, LLC (RVI) – Listed as a “foreign limited liability company with its principal place of business located in the state of Arkansas.”  RVI’s headquarters is located at the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods.  The company was formed as an Alabama business entity in 2018, after Tyson’s purchase of American Proteins, under the name Tyson Blending, LLC; the name was changed to RVI in Sept. 2018.  The company produces feather and byproduct meal from chicken carcasses. 
  • American Proteins, Inc. (API) – Listed as a “foreign corporation with its principal place of business located in the state of Georgia.”  API operated the Hanceville plant prior to its being purchased by Tyson/RVI, and was the operator at the time of the 2016 acid spill.
  • Jason Spann – The only individual currently named in the suit, he is the current general manager of the RVI Hanceville plant, and also served in that capacity during its API days.  The complaint called him “the individual in charge of the safe and proper operation of the discharge of sanitary wastewaters associated with the rendering operations of the plant,” and alleged, “Jason Spann and (up to 13 fictitious defendants in management positions) failed to act as the responsible and prudent person to remedy issues that have caused and are causing damages to the Plaintiffs and the Mulberry River and Black Warrior River after receiving adequate warning and notice of such issues.”
  • Hydraservice, Inc. – Listed in the complaint and its own website as both Hydraservice and Hydra Service, the company, founded by F.J. Doyle near Warrior in 1992, is alleged to be the contractor that installed the pump and equipment at the RVI plant, a failure of which led to the June 6 spill. According to the complaint, “Tyson Farms claims the June 6th discharge was caused by a coupling on a hose/pipe that came loose and was attached to a pump that was pumping sewage from one basin or lagoon into another and that a local contract pump company supplied and installed the pump, piping, and coupling. Upon information and belief Defendant, Hydraservice, is the company or contractor [which] provided and operated the pumps, pipes, hoses, and other equipment for this task of pumping raw sewage from one basin to another basin. From reports at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (“ADEM”), the work to pump the sewage from the basin was not overseen for several hours and the coupling came loose during that time and was allowed to freely run out and into the Mulberry River for hours.”

Charges

The complaint charged the defendants with:

  • Negligence – The complaint alleged that the defendants had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the operation of the plant and all equipment there, and failed to do so to the degree of violating the law.
  • Nuisance – The complaint alleged that the June 6 and previous spills, along with the foul odor that regularly comes from the plant has interfered with the ability of river residents to use and enjoy their property, has lowered property values and caused the residents undue stress.
  • Wanton Conduct – The complaint alleged that the defendants were aware of ongoing issues like the smell, and of the dangers of spills, and deliberately continued to run the plant in a manner likely to result in such problems.  According to the complaint, the defendants “continue to wantonly cause or allow harmful substances to be deposited into the Mulberry River and they continue to wantonly cause and allow the offensive odor to permeate continuously onto and around the Plaintiffs’ property with actual knowledge.”

The complaint also specifically charged that:

  • 175,000 fish were reported killed, but the actual number cannot be known; and “The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources concluded that the Mulberry River has been damaged for five years as a result of the June 6th discharge.”
  • “It is upon information and belief that a representative of Tyson issued a statement less than ten days after the June 6th discharge that the river was safe for recreation,” and that “Tyson based this statement only upon the dissolved oxygen levels of the river without testing for e-coli or fecal coliform.”
  • The spill led to the cancellation of a June 22, 2019 kayak race sponsored by the Sipsey Heritage Commission, resulting in a loss of money to the commission and likely decreased participation in future events.
  • “Other sewage spills of Tyson Farms and American Proteins and fictitious Defendants 1-40, like the June 6th spill, were reportedly from lack of adequate maintenance and/or supervision, lack of the proper oversight, lack of proper operation, and lack of proper advice,” and that the ongoing smell at the plant has the same origin.

Award for damages sought

According to the complaint, the Plaintiffs are seeking compensation for issues including:

  • Loss of property value
  • Deprivation of use and enjoyment of their property
  • “Fear, worry, stress, anxiety and mental anguish over the past damage and continuing future damage to their property,” and the same stress over past and future health concerns
  • The loss of funds to the Sipsey Heritage Commission
  • Attorney fees and other costs related to the case
  • “Punitive damages in such amount as a jury deems necessary to punish defendants, including the fictitiously named defendants, for such reprehensible conduct and to deter defendants and others from engaging in such reprehensible conduct in the future.” 
  • Remediation of the river itself

Tyson Foods Senior Manager for Public Relations/Corporate Communications, Worth Sparkman, visited Cullman Monday morning and met with The Tribune.  He declined to speak on the record about the spill or to address the lawsuit, citing its status as pending litigation, but said that Tyson wanted area residents to know that the corporation is still active in efforts to respond to the aftermath of the spill and to improve the RVI Hanceville plant.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com