POLK COUNTY, Tenn. — Polk County residents say they were left in the dark after hearing about our report that confirmed human biosolids are being dumped near Copperhill, even though the county banned that practice last fall.
On Thursday, we uncovered new details, including why the state of Tennessee is not doing anything to stop the biosolid deliveries.
For decades, mines in and around Copperhill operated constantly. Fumes from smelting copper for sulfuric acid destroyed all vegetation & eroded the land -- and left a lot of chemicals in the soil.
That's why commissioners in Polk County passed a resolution last fall that bans the dumping of biosolids in the county.
But that resolution is not binding, meaning there was nothing to prevent companies from ordering and delivering biosolids to Polk County.
Biosolids are used to fertilize crops, but recently concerns have been raised on the federal level about the chemicals they contain, including PFAS, which causes cancer. The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced new guidelines to limit PFAS exposure back in March.
That's why residents we spoke with in Polk County Thursday say they're concerned.
We want transparency. We were told this wasn't gonna happen anymore,' business owner Rob Strangia told us.
The biosolid dumping is now under investigation by both the state of Tennessee and Georgia.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) told us on Thursday they gave Copperhill Industries the go ahead to process biosolids on the former mine site in a pilot project.
They say did not require a permit because of the quote remedial nature of the site.
A spokeswoman also addressed resident concerns about the sludge dumping and the odor that comes with it.
We are aware of some odor concerns,' TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski told us. 'The odors are originating from the final land application of the remaining Class B biosolids from Moccasin Bend. This application should be completed, weather permitting, in early June. We are confident the onsite odors will be greatly resolved as a result.
"The County has passed a resolution – not an ordinance – which is not legally binding,' Schofinski added.
We also learned who is brining the biosolids to Polk County -- and where it's coming from.
The trucks are coming from Cobb County, Georgia, near Atlanta by Denali, a national recycler of organic material.
Copperhill Industries brought in similar material from Chattanooga’s Moccasin Bend treatment plant last year, but stopped because of public outcry.
Their website still says "All shipments of biosolids have been suspended.”
We reached out to Denali for comment. A spokesperson told us via email
We partner with Copperhill Industries to restore healthy forests and grasslands on a site that was severely damaged by mining and smelting. We have worked closely with government agencies to ensure that this process meets all regulatory requirements. Biosolids are an abundant source of nutrients and organic matter - the two things that mine lands need in order to support vegetation. Biosolids are tightly regulated by state and federal agencies, and this resource has been used to establish grass and trees on mine sites in the U.S. for decades. Many scientific studies have shown that the material is safe and effective.
The Denali spokesperson also says water that was 'highly acidic and heavily polluted' before work began is 'now running clear and supporting abundant ducks and fish, and 'land that was barren is now lush with grass and home to deer and turkeys.'
Denali provided this video showing its restoration work:
We did some digging into Denali Water.
In 2021, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued a cease and desist order to the company.
They were using biosolids to rehab another mine site in North Jefferson County.
The state found that Denali was not transparent about their plans, and did not employ best practices when handing the byproduct to quote "minimize odor and protect human health and the environment."
We continue to dig deeper into this story. Depend on us to bring you updates as we get them.