WINCHESTER, Va. - Valley Proteins Vice President Michael Smith stands next to the animal-rendering business his grandfather built among the apple orchards and inhales deeply.
There is no hint of the rotten-garbage smell that Baltimore residents say they endured for decades - until a fire destroyed the company's Curtis Bay cooker two years ago and forced it to stop rendering animals there. Though the Winchester plant renders several truckloads of carcasses a day, the main odor outside the plant is the pine tinge of Smith's cologne.
Smith credits the lack of odors to a 2-year-old renovation that upgraded the Winchester plant's wastewater treatment systems and added scrubbers to control emissions.
"We think we've done a great job in Winchester," Smith said, "but we've got an even better plan for Baltimore."
That plan is a $5.5 million expansion of the Curtis Bay plant, including a rebuilt cooker that will turn animal byproducts into livestock feed, fuels, lubricants and other products. Currently, Valley Proteins is recycling only restaurant grease in Curtis Bay.
The company is waiting for the Maryland Department of the Environment to grant it an air-quality permit so rendering can resume. Meanwhile, residents are rallying the opposition.
A local developer planning 1,000 homes near the plant is challenging Valley Proteins' building permits before the Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals, and two Maryland state senators introduced a bill - unanimously voted down last week - to forbid rendering plants from operating near homes.
Smith said he understands the concerns but that those problems are in the past. He said the benefits of rendering - keeping animal parts out of landfills and recycling them into useful products - should far outweigh any concerns.
"This is not something that can be driven off to Mexico or some other foreign country," Smith said. "This is an essential business to protect our environment and our citizens."
Rendering plants may not be the most popular neighbors, but the service they provide keeps the livestock industry humming. The National Renderers Association, an Alexandria-based trade group representing 43 companies, estimates the plants recycle about 50 billion pounds of raw material each year - about 68,000 tons a day.
Rendering plants also establish a trail for addressing ills such as mad cow disease and the avian flu. Computerized systems ensure that cow remnants don't go for bovine consumption.
If bird flu strikes, renderers can quarantine plants to process infected chickens.
"It's not the glamorous side of the livestock industry," said association President Tom Cook. "But if you didn't render, you probably wouldn't have a livestock industry."
At the Winchester plant, drivers back up their trucks to a garage and unload the animal byproducts collected from supermarkets and slaughterhouses. The meat then enters a cooker, which looks like a petroleum tank and operates like a deep-fryer, and is heated to between 250 and 270 degrees. The substance then is drained and separated.
The solid meat goes through a press, then a hammermill, to become a granulated protein meal for animals. The meat's fat is pumped out, centrifuged and transformed into fats that can be used for cosmetics and lubricants. The fat's fuel also occasionally heats the plant.
The Winchester plant also recycles restaurant grease, which comes in 55-gallon or 300-gallon drums - an amount Smith says could clog any sewer system if it weren't rendered.
An old frying-oil smell is unmistakable inside the plant, where signs warn "danger - high voltage" and the yellow railings are coated in a brownish grease.
But aside from the occasional government regulator, few visitors venture inside. Far more important to community relations is what's outside, where a geyserlike pump pushes wastewater through a series of sanitizing steps.
When the water runs its course, Smith said, it's clean enough for the plant to use as a floor scrub.
The water goes back through the treatment system and eventually lands in a storage pond, where it's sprayed on hay crops and grass.
Though the plant's neighbors in Winchester occasionally complained of odors before the renovation, Smith said he hardly hears anything now. One of the most frequent complainers wrote Smith to say recent odor controls have "made life more enjoyable."
The rendering business has changed since Clyde A. Smith founded the Winchester operation in 1949. At that time, conditions were so difficult that he nearly lost the company twice. When he died in 1968, Gerald F. Smith, Michael's father, took over the 20-employee company.
By the time Gerald Smith died last year, Valley Proteins had swelled to one of the nation's largest rendering companies, with 21 plants and close to 1,300 employees.