You may have seen the headlines:

  • 'Poop train' full of NYC sewage raises stink in Alabama town
  • 'Poop train' carrying human waste cleared after months of squatting in Alabama town
  • NYC 'poop train' flushed out of Alabama town
  • Free of New York’s stinky sludge train, an Alabama town is still steaming

First things first: Yes, a 56-car container train filled with 10 million pounds of “biosolids” (translation: treated human waste) collected from wastewater treatment plants in New York and New Jersey really was stranded in northern Alabama rail yard for several excruciating weeks. And while major media outlets had a bit of fun injecting scatological humor into headlines, the situation was no laughing matter to any sentient creature with a functioning olfactory system who just happened to live, work or exist in the vicinity of the stalled train.

The same publications with the potty-humor headlines also documented the nose-hair-singeing misery that befell the residents of Parrish, a tight-knit mining town (population 960) located about 40 miles northwest of Birmingham in rural Walker County. Little League games were canceled. Folks stopped relaxing on their front porches and cooking outdoors. Windows were shuttered and air-conditioning units switched off. Outdoor labor became a literally sickening burden. “It was acrid, hurtful, all-consuming, the kind of stench that forced residents and city workers to don masks just to get through the day,” reports the Washington Post.

“It smells like rotting animals, or a dead carcass. It seems like there’s a dead animal nearby,” Mayor Heather Hall told the New York Times. “And it’s not like you just get a whiff of it where it’s just a subtle smell. It is so overpowering you cannot go outside.”

Mercifully, the permeating stench of several million pounds of sewage sludge baking in the hot Alabama sun finally subsided last week after the train’s contents were hauled away via truck. Finally. While this development was one of elation, many Parrish residents, left traumatized by the aggressive assault on their noses and overall sense of well-being, are understandably still worked up. And they still have questions, particularly: Why was a train filled with human waste from New York traveling through this sleepy stretch of Alabama hill country to begin with?

The unplanned stopover from hell

The noxious layover began earlier this year by very unhappy accident.

Originating in the Big Apple, the train was en route to the town of West Jefferson in Jefferson County, Alabama, where its containers were to be transferred to trucks and hauled off to Big Sky Landfill, a private facility located about 20 miles east of Parrish. Similar to countless other landfills, Big Sky mixes biosolids with dirt to use as cover material. This transaction — the interstate transport and transfer of treated human waste to Big Sky — had been going on since early 2017. This, however, came as a surprise to many folks in surrounding communities, including residents of Parrish who had no idea that a train filled with NYC-sourced sewage sludge had been quietly passing through town for nearly a year. It had just never stopped before.

Things hit a snag in late January, when West Jefferson filed an injunction to halt the transfer of odious rail cargo within town limits. And so, unable to proceed to its final destination, the in-limbo train was forced to park in nearby Parrish, a town with no zoning regulations that forbid stench-emitting trains from stopping for an indefinite amount of time. Parrish didn’t have these laws on the books simply because, well, such a scenario was previously unthinkable.

Google map screenshot of Parrish, Alabama and environs Home to just shy of 1,000 people and measuring only 2 square miles, Parrish is located a few miles south of Jasper, a former coal-mining hub and seat of Walker County, Alabama. (Image: Google Maps)

“We’re probably going to look at creating some simple zoning laws for the town of Parrish so we can be sure something like this does not happen again,” Hall told the Associated Press during the frustrating days leading up to the eventual removal of the not-so-precious cargo.

It took two months of angry phone calls and pinched nostrils to have the contents of the train removed. In interviews, Hall describes those weeks as both taxing and a touch humiliating, although it ultimately brought the community together. "I don't think you can underestimate the power of what a community can do, especially if you can be vocal and stand together," Hall tells CBS News. "It can get the job done."

As reported by the New York Times, the nightmare came to an end when the town council threatened legal action and an injunction against Big Sky if the offending biosolids didn’t go bye-bye by April 23.

As the drawn-out ordeal in Parrish unfolded, many Alabamans were learning for the first time about a lucrative business taking place in their backyards: the business of disposing of other states' waste, poop included.

Alabama: America's preferred out-of-state dumping ground

As detailed by the Associated Press, Alabama and other Southern states where land is cheap and plentiful (and zoning laws are advantageously lax) have a “long history” of profiting as the dumping grounds for other states that simply don’t want — or don’t have any room for — their own waste.

Before the Ocean Dumping Ban of 1988, many large municipalities, New York City included, dumped sewage sludge directly into the ocean hundreds of miles offshore.

"[T]he waste has to go somewhere, so it gets transported out of state,” says Brandon Wright, a spokesperson for the National Waste & Recycling Association.

The AP goes on to reference one particular landfill in impoverished Sumter County, Alabama, that was so popular as an out-of-state dumping spot when it opened in 1977 that a former state attorney general described it as “America’s Pay Toilet.” At its height, the landfill, which quickly grew to be the nation’s largest hazardous-waste landfill, accepted 800,000 tons of hazardous waste each year.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, Greenpoint, Brooklyn Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn is the largest of NYC's 14 wastewater treatment plants. Together they produce 1,200 tons of biosolids every day. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Alabama’s status as the nation’s preferred dumping ground for toxic coal ash is an ongoing and contentious issue in the Heart of Dixie. Some communities have attempted to fight back against planned coal-ash dumps only to find their complaints dismissed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Speaking to the AP, activist Nelson Brooks of Birmingham-based environmental group Black Warrior Riverkeeper describes Alabama as "kind of an open-door, rubber-stamp permitting place" for landfill operators that cater largely to out-of-state municipalities. "It's easy for them to zip into a rural or poor community and set up shop and start making a ton of cash," he says.

Local activist groups including Black Warrior Riverkeeper have rallied against Big Sky Landfill, which, as mentioned, had been accepting New York's and New Jersey’s sewage sludge by the train-full since 2017. NYC has reportedly terminated its contract with Big Sky and stopped shipping biosolids to Alabama altogether for the “time being” after the rank situation in Parrish began making national headlines.

We don't want your poop

Now that Parrish residents are more aware of Alabama's glowing reputation within the waste-disposal industry, it's no surprise many are angry and resentful that the waste that befouled their town for weeks is of the big-city variety. And we’re not talking Mobile, Huntsville or Tuscaloosa waste … New York City waste. Northern waste. The worst, it would seem, kind of waste there could be.

“It sounds like a joke, like the poop emoji, but it was a real issue for our town,” resident Michelle Buford tells the Washington Post after the train was cleared and the pungent haze lifted. “It felt like the Northerners were trying to pile messes on the Southerners.”

“They tell us this material is harmless,” says reserve police officer Jeff Nelson of the EPA's tepid response. “Well, if it’s harmless, why not get rid of it up North? Why send it down here?”

Sherleen Pike, a local who spent the duration of the train’s stopover dabbing peppermint oil under her nose, asks the AP: “Would New York City like for us to send all our poop up there forever? They don't want to dump it in their rivers, but I think each state should take care of their own waste.”

(This New Yorker was well aware the city has shipped its run-of-the-mill garbage to places like Virginia and Pennsylvania ever since the 2001 closure of what was once the world’s largest landfill, Fresh Kill Landfill on Staten Island. However, I was unaware that what I flush is also exported … at least so far away. In my naivety, I assumed that all 1,200 tons of sewage sludge generated every day by New Yorkers was all trucked upstate and transformed into fuel or fertilizer.)

Cordova, Alabama Like the neighboring town of Cordova (pictured here), Parrish has struggled in recent decades. But its mayor is determined not to let a temporary offensive aroma stop progress. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This sentiment — I’m sick and tired of big, prosperous coastal cities literally dumping on us — appears to be widespread around town. It’s also particularly poetic in Parrish, a town that's suffered from major economic depression for decades but is slowly beginning to rebound as mining activity resumes in the region. The narrative is seemingly tailor-made for a divided, Trump-era America: Just as things are looking up, big-city folk come and rain — or poop, in this case — on the parade.

Still, there’s optimism that Parrish will thrive and grow despite the unflattering headlines of late. “We’re a great little town on the cusp of coming back,” Hall, the mayor, tells the Washington Post.

And in the end, Parrish didn't let 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey poop on its parade. The town's annual Coal Fest celebration, complete with a barbecue cook-off and classic car show, was held as planned in early April. Lower temperatures, a renewed sense of community solidarity and knowledge that the end was in sight all helped things along. One would imagine there was also no shortage of things for residents to chat about.

“This is a huge country with wide-open spaces," Hall says. "All we ask is that states take care of their own mess. There has got to be a better way.”

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

How a poop-filled train from NYC wound up in rural Alabama
While easy to focus on the gross-out factor, the tale of a stranded train filled with sewage sludge shines a light on the complicated afterlife of our waste.