MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A few feet from the banks of Kilowatt Lake in North Memphis sits the small neighborhood of New Chelsea. In six years living there, neighbors have gotten used to one thing.
“Smells horrible,” one woman said.
She never thought much of it and didn’t think she could do anything about it; she also never goes past the end of her block into the small industrial district between her neighborhood and the lake.
People in the industrial area can smell it too.
“Like rotting disgustingness. It’s just awful,” another woman told us.
Both say they have smelled the stench for years.
In the industrial area, they figured it came from Dino’s Meats, a wild game processing facility.
But they never thought beyond that, until someone noticed hundreds of deer carcasses piled up and left to rot in a lot behind Dino’s.
“You’ll literally see dogs running by with bones in their mouths and they’re like wild dogs that are aggressive,” said a woman who works in the area.
She started making calls to the Shelby County Health Department and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. When they couldn’t get answers, they called the WREG Problem Solvers.
“They should be fined and cleaned up, shut down probably,” someone in the area said.
The WREG Problem Solvers tried multiple times to speak with someone at Dino’s but no one came to the door or called us back. A large holding company called AyCorp based in Missouri owns Dino’s Meats.
AyCorp owner Barry Aycock said: “I don’t know anything about deer carcass dumping in Memphis. That business is leased to a third party.”
Dino’s Meats is licensed through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. In a routine December inspection obtained by WREG, the state found multiple critical and repeat violations, including unsanitary conditions inside and outside the facility. Still, they gave Dino’s a passing grade with a score of 79 percent.
They also wrote “Carcass remains [were] bagged and placed in the dumpster.” The inspector noted he saw people “hauling trash outside and loading hides into the bed of a pickup.”
It’s unclear whether carcasses were already being dumped in the lot about 100 feet away.
WREG sent the Tennessee Department of Agriculture photos of what we found less than three months after their inspection and asked if the photos showed a violation of state law. We didn’t get a straight answer.
Instead, the state did a follow-up inspection, where records showed Dino’s operator Jeff McBride told them he hadn’t utilized a carcass removal dumpster for two years and had been discarding the carcasses on another lot he owns, even though records showed that land was part of a public right-of-way. Department of Agriculture officials said they told him he had to put the animal remains in covered containers.
McBride promised to “have a company bring in a bulldozer and clean up equipment” to remove the carcasses in the next week.
But a week later, nothing had changed.
“That’s obviously totally unacceptable,” said Ruhan Nagra, director of the environmental justice clinic at the University of Utah.
Nagra has worked on cases around the country where pollution threatens people’s health, usually in historically marginalized communities like New Chelsea, where neighbors didn’t know the source of the stench or question it.
“In this situation where you have a predominantly Black community next to the site where deer carcasses are being disposed, it’s in many ways a classic environmental justice issue,” Nagra said. “The dumping of animal carcasses raises several public health concerns.”
The health concerns include:
- Smell affecting quality of life by keeping people from being able to go outside.
- When carcasses decompose, they release bacteria that can contaminate the water supply.
- Carcasses can spread diseases like salmonella and chronic wasting disease.
“It’s a neurodegenerative disease that causes brain tissue to break down so animals brains become sponge-like and filled with holes,” she said of chronic wasting disease. “So far, there’s no evidence chronic wasting disease can spread to humans but some scientists have pointed out that could change.”
“This is an issue for the whole city,” said Frank Johnson, a local environmental justice advocate who’s executive director of the Depot Communities United.
Johnson has had trouble getting help with harmful impacts in his neighborhood near the old defense depot in South Memphis. He wants more people in Memphis need to know about the risks.
“We’ve been trying to get a knowledge campaign, to let people know what you’re smelling, dealing with, is not what you think it is,” he said.
People who work in the area think authorities would’ve been more responsive if the issue happened in a predominantly-white area.
“This smell, in East Memphis, probably would’ve been complained about the first day, not two years later,” one woman said.
When Dino’s didn’t clean up the carcasses, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said there was nothing else they could do since the carcasses were dumped on a separate plot of land. They referred us to multiple other entities: the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the city of Memphis.
Spokespeople for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told WREG carcass dumping on private property is permitted in the state so long as you’re not violating other health or environmental ordinances.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation told WREG it instructed Dino’s to clean up the carcasses.
A spokesperson for the city of Memphis said this issue was not in the city’s jurisdiction related to storm water regulation.
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“I think it’s really disturbing local and state authorities haven’t immediately acted on this,” Nagra said.
The WREG Problem Solvers went back to Memphis officials asking again if they have any departments that can investigate the issue. They then said code enforcement had cited Dino’s for dumping and given them a date in environmental court.
Four days later, the Problem Solvers found the lot clear of carcasses with fresh dirt piled on top.
Nearby business employees said they think Dino’s buried the carcasses, rather than removing them.
McBride told an environmental court judge Monday he paid a company to have them removed. The city asked for proof and reset the case for May 1.
► Got a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org