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A ‘poop train’ from New York befouled a small Alabama town, until the town fought back

April 20, 2018 at 1:45 PM

Containers filled with tons of sewage sludge are shown on April 12, in Parrish, Ala. The town dealt with a horrid stench for more than two months after the “poop train” rolled in from New York. (Jay Reeves/AP)

PARRISH, Ala. — All anyone here could talk about was the odor, which drifted from the rail yard to the softball field, past the pharmacy and the hardware store. It was acrid, hurtful, all-consuming, the kind of stench that forced residents and city workers to don masks just to get through the day.

And everyone knew the source: the poop train.

For two months, this two-square-mile coal town in the lush forested hills northwest of Birmingham found itself mired in other people’s problems, the unwilling custodian of a train filled with 10 million pounds of treated human waste from New York. Destined for permanent disposal in a landfill in nearby Adamsville, the train was blocked from traveling through when a neighboring jurisdiction took a stand against having the material traveling through its community.

That decision left the train stranded here at the closest stop, emitting foul odors, for what seemed like an eternity to those who had to endure it.

After a lengthy battle, the waste was mercifully gone as of Thursday — removed one truckload at a time — but little Parrish is left with the sting of feeling as if no one cared that all of this excrement was left on its doorstep. The town had become purgatory in a little-known disposal pipeline that imports materials no one wants, for profit — big-city waste from the North that heads to landfills in the rural South.

“It sounds like a joke, like the poop emoji, but it was a real issue for our town,” said Michelle Buford, who was enjoying breakfast at Jack’s Restaurant, a town gathering spot, on the first odor-free day in weeks. “It felt like the Northerners were trying to pile messes on the Southerners.”

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Her son, Daniel, who works for the city, said it was nearly impossible to cut grass or pick up garbage, as working outside came with ever-present nauseating fumes. Buford said the odor was as if a septic tank was failing, and she was cautious about taking her grandchildren outside.

“They told us it wasn’t dangerous, but we were concerned about our neighbors in poor health,” she said. “We all checked on our elderly, but that’s what you do in a small town. We’re ready to get back to normal.”

The fragrance of barbecue has returned to Parrish, and the blue smoke rising from back yards hasn’t ever smelled better. This time of year, that’s what people do here: They sit on their porches, drink sweet tea, and grill chicken and pork chops, so much so that you can enjoy the scent when you drive through the streets.

But lingering, still, is the concern that something from the outside could alter this place for so long.

Mayor Heather Hall discusses the nearby train loaded with tons of sewage sludge that was stinking up her community of Parrish, Ala. (Jay Reeves/AP)

Mayor Heather Hall said she has done nothing other than work on “the train situation” for two months, noting that other Alabama towns have had to deal with trains full of waste but nothing that approaches this magnitude.

“As soon as I found out, I was on the phone to Montgomery, to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, even to the president,” Hall said over biscuits and coffee Thursday. “They all said it was out of their hands. It’s like we fell through the cracks. … I think people think we’re hillbillies from Alabama and that we wouldn’t fight this in our town. But we did. And we can breathe our air again.”

Jeff Nelson, a reserve Parrish police officer and captain with the rescue squad, said he has been wondering how his town ended up with the waste and why it wasn’t dealt with elsewhere.

“They tell us this material is harmless,” Nelson said. “Well, if it’s harmless, why not get rid of it up North? Why send it down here?”

At the root of the issue is the shipping of treated human waste and inconsistent regulations involving transport from city to city and from state to state. Such waste has been traveling through this area by train from New York and New Jersey for disposal since 2017, part of a contract with the Big Sky Environmental Landfill, about 25 minutes south of Parrish. New York and other jurisdictions, banned from dumping sewage at sea, have sought alternative disposal sites, including out-of-state landfills with competitive dumping fees.

Big Sky declined to comment.

The train had 56 rail cars carrying treated sewage destined for the landfill. The neighboring town of West Jefferson had obtained an injunction to keep the trains from entering and transferring their loads to trucks at its train stop — citing local zoning laws against noxious odors — and Parrish became the new stop for transfer. The result was tons of treated waste product sitting around as temperatures began to rise. Some compared the odor to that of “dead animals” or “the worst sewage you can imagine.”

Although further shipments from New York to Alabama stopped as a result of legal action and complaints, the trains remained in Parrish until the city council voted to deny a business license to Big Sky.

The poop train added insult to injury in a place that has struggled to recover since its mine closed in the mid-1980s. The high school closed in 2014. Most of the storefronts in a once-thriving downtown are empty.

Hall has been hoping for a revival, especially as nearby coal mines have begun to reopen. Parrish just celebrated the annual Coal Festival, with a car show and barbecue cook-off. Saturday nights play host to the local semiprofessional football team, the P-Town Wreckaz, with games on the old high school field.

“We’re a great little town on the cusp of coming back,” she said. The day she got the first call about the train, she had visited with a retail expert in Birmingham, with dreams of bringing more businesses and restaurants to Parrish.

“Maybe we won’t get an Applebee’s, but we could get a Waffle House,” she said. Maybe even a hotel for interstate travelers.

Hall says that during the past two months she has talked with leaders from many other small Southern towns facing similar concerns about the transport of treated waste materials through their communities.

“Nobody wants this material in their back yard,” Hall said. “Having experienced it, I can say why. This is a huge country with wide-open spaces. All we ask is that states take care of their own mess. There has got to be a better way.”


Erin Shaw Street is a freelance journalist based in Birmingham, Ala.

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