Sara Smedley found herself driving behind a large truck — the kind you see transporting bulk loads of trash to landfills — on a road near her Maxatawny Township home early in 2020.
The sight of a such a large truck entering a property on College Boulevard was not the only thing she found strange, even alarming.
It was the smell of its contents.
Smedley grew up near what became known as the Rodale Institute organic farm and is accustomed to the odors from agricultural operations, especially when manure is being spread on fields.
What she encountered while trailing that truck, she said, was without a doubt the worst thing she has ever smelled.
“When it (the truck) was down below me I could see the contents and there were bloated cattle — belly-up legs — and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on,’ ” she said.
Her sickening discovery occurred around the time the COVID-19 pandemic forced the months-long shutdown of many nonessential services, with fears of catching the deadly virus crippling even essential businesses, including meat-processing plants.
Smedley started calling various agencies.
She and her husband, “Bip,” reside on a large lot off narrow tree-lined Miller Drive that offers a panoramic view of the Kutztown area.
They and some of their neighbors worried that with the pandemic slowing production at meat-production plants, the property just across the road might be used to accept cattle carcasses for disposal.
“We were really afraid this was going to be a thing here,” Sara said.
As this past spring arrived, their worst fears would be realized.
According to DEP enforcement notices obtained by the Reading Eagle, dead cattle weren’t the only things being transported to the College Boulevard site without the necessary permits.
Load after load of what is referred to in state environmental regulations as food processing residuals — waste from slaughter houses, including bones, tendons and hides — were dumped there through May of this year. The barely covered piles attracted vectors, chiefly swarms of big, aggressive flies that made it impossible to spend time outdoors.
While composting of dead animals, also known as mortality composting, is allowed on farms by permit, the operators must follow best management practices as outlined in a state manual.
A solid waste permit is required to dispose of dead animals or residual waste from offsite locations, and that requires a nutrient management plan and a land-application plan that includes testing samples to ensure the material has been properly composted before being spread in a field.
None of these requirements was being followed in 2020 and early in 2021, according to site inspections by DEP.
The Smedleys watched in dismay from above as their peaceful valley became a dumping ground for rotting flesh.
“We would stand up here and watch them haul buckets of this stuff and just glop it on top,” Sara said.
“Even when the stuff was composted, it was being spread before the composting process was completed, so then there would be bones sticking out,” Bip Smedley added.
“They’re out there fertilizing the fields, and there were bones and hides — completely illegal,” the Smedleys’ neighbor, Jan Allen, added.
The Smedleys and Jan Allen and her husband, Robert Leiby, retained Leesport environmental lawyer Carl Engleman Jr. to get the attention of authorities, if not the violators.
Engleman drafted a certified letter addressed to the property owners, Elmer H. and Arlene W. Zimmerman, their tenant, Jesse Burholder, who handled the composting, and Ira Beiler, who officials say brokered the transport and disposal of whole animals and meat processing waste at the Zimmerman property at 791 College Blvd. Copies were sent to the DEP and the state Department of Agriculture.
The letter served as his clients’ formal 60-day notice of violations of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law and their intention to sue in Berks County Court unless the violations ceased.
“Your failure to follow applicable regulations pertaining to management of residual waste constitutes a violation of a number of Pennsylvania statutes, including the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, and has caused damage to my clients’ property,” the letter stated. “Specifically, your actions have subjected my clients to a number of harms, including, but not limited to … significant unpleasant odors and swarms of insects. Hence, your actions are depriving my client of the use and enjoyment of their properties.”
Engleman said he was shocked when he saw for himself what his clients were complaining about.
“It’s very similar to landfill operation in that it requires daily cover with materials to make sure to minimize vectors,” the attorney said in a phone interview. “It (the regulations) requires that compost itself be turned as well as tested periodically before it is actually spread on fields.
“My clients have photographs of jaw bones that were spread on fields right across the road from their house. It was absolutely ridiculous when I was out there to take a look at it. And as I understand, this is not these folks’ first rodeo. This has happened on multiple properties.”
According to the state Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Health, Beiler, 70, of Susquehanna County has a history of civil penalties and criminal summary convictions for similar violations.
When Sara Smedley first contacted the Agriculture Department to describe the situation, she didn’t have to mention Beiler by name.
Elmer Zimmerman had a prior run-in of his own with the state Agriculture Department.
According to a 2008 Philadelphia Inquirer article, citing the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, Zimmerman shot about 70 of his small breed dogs and threw them into a compost pile on his property after receiving a poor inspection report for his licensed kennel in Maxatawny Township on July 24, 2008.
The state dog warden cited Zimmerman for multiple dog-law violations and ordered vet checks on 39 dogs for flea and fly bites. This came as the Rendell administration was stepping up enforcement of commercial kennels in response to inhumane conditions.
Zimmerman told state officials that he killed the dogs on recommendation from a veterinarian. Officials said what he did was horrible but not illegal.
Regarding the disposal of animal processing waste on the Zimmermans’ property at 791 College Blvd., the Smedleys and their neighbors did get some satisfaction, though they learned enforcement of environmental laws is a bureaucratic, slow-moving process.
Pressure brought by state Sen. Judy Schwank resulted in a beef processing plant that generated some of the waste that ended up on the Zimmerman property taking steps to rectify the matter, including sending truckloads of composting material to properly cover the decomposing flesh to discourage proliferation of flies and other pests.
In the meantime, they endured more weeks of hardship, including the putrid odor.
“If the wind was out of the south or southeast, it would be obnoxious,” Bip Smedley said. “It depended on a daily basis which way the wind was blowing what kind of smell you got, but the flies were constant.”
The large green flies would fill door jambs of vehicles. Visitors were warned not to leave their vehicle windows open or else they would have a car full of flies.
Some of the windrows of the compost site even caught on fire, apparently from too much lime being applied too fast in an attempt to mitigate the odor problem.
“One morning the whole valley was filled in with acrid smoke,” Bip Smedley said. “I ran out here, there was flames coming off them.”
Finally, the township levied heavy fines.
Township Zoning Officer Chris Paff cited the Zimmermans for violations of the land-use ordinance by accepting dead livestock and butchered remains from offsite locations. Beiler was also cited for brokering for his part in the operation.
Township Solicitor Elizabeth A. Magovern said neither the Zimmermans nor Beiler contested the violations in court. The matter was settled in August, as far as the township is concerned, with an agreement with the property owners and Beiler acknowledging the violations and the payment of fines, she said.
A right-to-know request by the Reading Eagle to obtain a copy of the agreement was denied by the township on the basis that the township has yet to receive a signed copy of the agreement from Beiler.
Attempts to contact the Zimmermans and Beiler by phone for comment on the matter were unsuccessful.
While the matter with the township may be resolved, the DEP and Agriculture Department are not through.
The latter department’s Bureau of Animal Health filed criminal charges against Beiler on Aug. 3. It’s unclear if any hearings have been held.
Charges include operating a dead domestic animal disposal business without a license, disposing of dead domestic animals by burial and transporting dead animals without a license.
According to the probable cause affidavit, Beiler cannot claim ignorance of the Domestic Animal Law regulations:
Since early 2010, the department has provided Beiler with education on the licensure requirements for dead domestic animal disposal businesses, on the requirement for third-party transaction of domestic animals and on the legal requirements for the proper disposal of the animals under the Domestic Animal Law as well as mortality composting practices.
“Mr. Beiler previously has received warnings, a civil penalty, and criminal summary citations for these same violations on at least two other Pennsylvania premises and did at one time hold a Dead Domestic Animal Disposal Business license for a location in Chester County,” the affidavit states.
The main function of the Bureau of Animal Health is to prevent and control the spread of certain dangerous transmissible diseases of animals that can infect livestock, pets, poultry, wild animals and even people.
The language of the affidavit suggests frustration from department officials with Beiler’s alleged actions, noting that even after the investigations began on College Boulevard, Beiler continue to arrange for the disposal of dead animals at another site in Maxatawny Township on Sitler Valley Road.
“The Department is very concerned about the potential for ongoing spread of dangerous transmissible diseases as well as public nuisances due to the defendant’s blatant, persistent, and extensive violations of multiple requirements of the Domestic Animal Law over a period of years,” the affidavit states. “Despite extensive efforts to educate and collaborate with the defendant to bring him into compliance, he continues to secure new, unlicensed and unapproved locations for the disposal of dead domestic animals from multiple locations without ensuring prompt, property and sanitary disposal.”
Source: Berkshire mont