Baltimore's industrial past and its uncertain future are about to clash in Curtis Bay, where the planned reopening of a 52-year-old animal rendering plant is running into opposition from neighbors and a local developer.
For decades, residents of the blue-collar community put up with the piercing odor emanating from the Valley Proteins plant, where workers cooked animal carcasses - just as they put up with noise, smells, spills, soot and pollution from other industrial plants.
Then most of Curtis Bay's other factories closed, and many of their workers moved away. An electrical fire destroyed Valley Proteins' cooker in July last year, and since then, the plant has limited its operations to recycling grease from restaurants.
"No one has commented about smelling it anymore," said Carl Brooks, president of the Cedar-Morris Hill Improvement Association in nearby Anne Arundel County.
Now the Virginia-based company, which runs 13 animal rendering plants in six states, has asked the Maryland Department of the Environment for permission to resume animal rendering in a new $5.5 million Curtis Bay plant on the site where the original Valley Proteins stood. Company President Gerald F. Smith Jr. said the plant would collect carcasses and scraps from local slaughterhouses and supermarkets, turning them into supplements for livestock feed.
"This facility has been there for 50 years," Smith said. "We're not asking to do anything we haven't done before, and we're getting ready to put the best odor-control technology in the business into that plant."
But the rendering plant's shutdown coincided with a resurgence in neighborhood activism and ambitious revitalization plans. Now residents smell trouble. Three community organizations have written letters to MDE officials and held a series of meetings with them.
"We want MDE to carefully review the permit," said Carol Eshelman, director of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, "and to ensure that there would be no odor and that they would operate in a safe manner."
Plans call for turning industrial Pennington Avenue into a shopper-friendly Main Street, and residents fear that the plant's odors would drive people away, Eshelman said.
At least one potential investor is reluctant to build near a rendering plant.
Stephen McAllister, a Waldorf-based developer, plans to build 1,000 single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums on 155 acres from Ritchie Highway to Pennington Avenue.
McAllister learned of Valley Proteins' plans two weeks ago. His attorneys have appealed Anne Arundel County's decision to issue two construction permits for the plant, which straddles the city-county line. The appeal charges that the permits violate the county code and critical-areas laws.
"We have a half a billion dollars in real estate going in there. We can't have that if it stinks," he said. "It can be working class; it can be industrial. But if it smells bad, forget it."
The Valley Proteins factory is the last animal rendering plant in Maryland, said Angelo Bianca, deputy director of the MDE's air office.
"We have to be concerned, given the community and what they're trying to do," Bianca said. "It's not something you'd want in a community that's trying to revitalize."
Bianca said MDE officials will visit rendering plants in other states before proceeding with the permit application.
MDE spokesman Richard McIntire said the agency has received 86 odor complaints about the plant since 1994 and issued nine notices of violation. There were no complaints about the grease recycling operation.
Smith said the old plant was so large and antiquated that odor control was difficult. The new plant would be smaller and more airtight, and all of its air would receive special filtration. Smith said he could assure the neighbors that the plant would not emit a nasty odor when it is operating properly but that he could not promise there would never be a smelly mistake or mechanical failure.
Local activists say the company's record elsewhere makes them uneasy. In the past 18 months, officials in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania have charged Valley Proteins with permit violations at six of its 13 plants.
Smith said some of the citations were for violations such as failure to file paperwork. He said the problems at the company's large poultry-waste processing plants in the Carolinas have been corrected and that it is appealing a $13,500 fine the Allegheny County Health Department imposed last month after a plant near Pittsburgh drew odor complaints.
"I'll bet you if I'd never had a problem in another state, the community would feel exactly the same way," Smith said. "This is like a power plant. This is like a landfill. Nobody wants one in their back yard."