When the wind blows the wrong way, residents on the west side of Bridgeville sometimes get a vivid and unpleasant reminder that the Simmons plant is busy making pet food ingredients.
Bridgeville leadership has been in conversation with the company for years and has seen improvements in the past, but the smell keeps returning. After recent complaints, the town says it is again reaching out to Simmons Foods and the state.
“Death,” said resident Brian Wetherill, when asked what it smells like. “Seriously. It smells like dead animals.”
Southern Delaware can get pungent with essence of livestock this time of year as farmers enhance their soil before planting. People are used to that, more or less.
“Living here, especially this time of year, you smell agriculture,” Wetherill said. "They’re putting manure on the fields and stuff like that. That’s fine, that's one thing, but (the plant is) a completely different kind of smell.”
“It’s very foul. It’s ridiculous that they can be in town like that and not have to keep that under control,” GL Jefferson, who owns Jeff’s Taproom and Grille right next door to the plant, said. He said the smell seems to get worse on rainy days.
Bridgeville town staff and commissioners are very aware of the issue.
“Every time we drive through town, my wife says, ‘What’s that smell?’” Commissioner Thomas Moran said during a discussion about it in a recent Commission meeting.
Town Manager Bethany DeBussy noted that after the recent complaints she’s started reaching out to lawmakers, the company, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
The smell tends to get worse as the weather gets warmer, DeBussy said. “I don’t want to go through the summer just letting it get worse and worse. So we’re all working on that.”
DeBussy wrote in a followup email that the town has worked with the company in the past, and had not had any complaints since last fall, until they began again this year.
“We continue to work with administration at the local facility as well as corporate headquarters to address the concerns,” she said.
“The town’s been wonderful,” Jefferson said. “The town’s trying to do everything they can do.”
The town has started logging the resident complaints so they have records, and town staff will also add entries if they notice the odor at town hall.
In a written statement, Simmons Foods said it is committed to being a good steward of the environment and any complaints in Bridgeville are a high priority.
"This year, we are unaware of any new or documented concerns about odor from the city of Bridgeville or private citizens," the statement said. The company says it maintains open communication with the town and with DNREC to address concerns as soon as possible.
Matt Short of Donnie’s Market, on the other side of the plant from Jeff’s Taproom, was out front painting a sign Monday as the produce market gets ready for the upcoming season. He said the smell from the plant can be terrible.
“In the summertime, it’s pretty rank,” he said.
The plant has been in town going back to 1969, state records show. The Hunsberger family ran it as Pet Poultry Products, but in 2018, Simmons Foods, based in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, bought the plant. That’s about the time local business owners say the smell issues began.
Smell issues were very seldom when it was run by the Hunsbergers, Jefferson said. “The past owners, you wouldn’t even know they were there."
He said other operations in the region are able to keep odors under control, citing the RAPA scrapple plant across the street as an example.
As far as odor, “You wouldn’t even know that Ralph and Paul Adams is in town,” he said.
Short agreed that when the Hunsbergers owned the plant, the smell wasn’t like it is now.
“It’s hard on business,” he said. “People get out and smell it and they think it’s here (at the market),” and then they don’t want to come in.
Jefferson said he invested thousands of dollars in an outdoor patio at the taproom, and it was a huge success at first. “But then the smell just became so horrid that people didn’t want to sit out there,” he said.
He, too, mentioned customer perception, recalling out-of-state cars pulling into his parking lot, their occupants getting out and then hastily retreating from the smell.
The Liquor Mart next to Donnie’s Market isn’t immune either. “The place smells like death,” one online reviewer wrote.
Jefferson agreed that the smell got better for a while, but said it seems like it’s getting worse again.
In a written statement, state Rep. Jesse Vanderwende confirmed there were odor complaints last year. “By Thanksgiving, town and state officials, working together with the plant’s staff, seemingly addressed the issues that led to the problems. The situation was stable over the winter.”
He said the town had received complaints last month, but, “In speaking with the town manager, it is my understanding that no incidents have occurred since March 21st. I will do whatever I can to assist efforts to further improve the situation.”
Like its predecessor at the site, Simmons Foods is also a family owned company dating back decades. The company says it has been in operation since 1949. It has several divisions, one of which produces poultry for human consumption and one that makes pet food. The Bridgeville plant appears to be an arm of the company called Simmons Animal Nutrition, which makes a “shelf stable, cooked meat slurry” that it markets to other pet food manufacturers.
Pet food is made out of a variety of ingredients, including grain and meat. The FDA requires that the food be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.
Jefferson said the company leaves raw meat out in the sun, possibly leftover meat it isn’t able to use, and rats can be seen on the premises.
He thinks the issue is the company is trying to process more meat than it has capacity for at the site. He said he’s called company headquarters in Arkansas, and was told representatives would come to town for a meeting but nobody ever showed up.
In its statement, Simmons said it had worked closely with Bridgeville and DNREC in 2021 to address concerns both then and in the future. "Those steps include additional enclosures of our water pre-treatment systems and hiring additional team members to ensure any organic materials outside our facility are promptly cleaned."
Michael Globetti, a spokesman for DNREC, confirmed in an email that the agency is in charge of enforcing odor complaints, and that Natural Resources Police investigate all environmental complaints. He also said residents can call a toll free hotline about odor issues.
Jefferson, Short and Wetherill all say they have called DNREC. Short said he’s been told the agency is working on it. Wetherill said they gave the impression there wasn’t much they could do about the issue.
“We’ve had a lot of people call, complaining, but it goes nowhere,” Jefferson said. “... I don’t know if (Simmons has) been fined, I don’t know if they’ve been shut down, and made to clean up … it’s kind of hush-hush.”
“You get tired of filing complaints when nothing seems to happen,” he said.
As of this story’s publication, DNREC had not made anyone available to speak about the odor issues at the plant, despite repeated requests. Globetti said he could not give more information before finding out if there was an investigation of the plant. He did not respond to further, more general questions about how DNREC has dealt with issues like this, how the process works, and how the department regulates odor.
If the smell ramps up again this summer, residents will be left at the mercy of the wind.
“We deal with it,” Wetherill said. “It’s one of those things like if I’m having company over and we’re going to be outside, it’s like ‘Oh man, I hope it doesn’t smell out there today.’
He’s not sure why the smell is so bad, so he’s not sure what should be done to address the problem.
“I hope it goes away,” he said.
Residents can call DNREC about any odor issues at 1-800-662-8802.