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Curdled creek: Kosciusko residents sour over town’s milky lagoon

KOSCIUSKO – About once a year, usually as the late Mississippi winter hits, a peculiar odor wafts into the homes of residents on the east side of Kosciusko.

“It’s the equivalent to the smell of a bad perm, like when people used to get perms and it would smell like burning hair,” described resident Amanda DuBard. “And it is so strong, you can’t breathe.”

DuBard said in February that her kids, who she homeschools, had headaches for a week. 

“Honestly, I would sell my house today just because of the smell,” she said. 

Robert Black, another resident in the neighborhood, said this year’s stench was as bad as any one prior, and even woke him up one morning around 5 a.m.

“I’m not one to voice (issues), you know, I usually let it go,” Black said. “But they’ve had enough time to figure out the problem and get it resolved.”  

Kosciusko Wastewater Department Superintendent Howard Sharkey, shows an image of milk from Prairie Farms Dairy being dumped into one of the city’s 20-acre lagoons, stating it contributes to the putrid smell permeating the city from the lagoons, Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The culprit, Kosciusko’s officials and residents agree, is a 20-acre, murky colored lagoon, tucked behind some forest along the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s one of several the town has to store and treat wastewater before releasing it into the Yockanookany River. 

The lagoon in question, though, is almost entirely made up of waste from a nearby dairy plant owned by company Prairie Farms, according to Kosciusko Mayor Tim Kyle. The Illinois-based business, which makes milk, cheese and other dairy goods, bought the facility from local dairy company LuVel in 2007.

“I would say probably 99% of the volume in that (lagoon) comes from (Prairie Farms),” Kyle told Mississippi Today. “There’s a lot of milk and other products that go in that thing, and I’ll tell you, I’ve learned more about sewer than I ever wanted to know.” 

The plant, which Kyle said employs about 125 people and is a major economic asset for the small city, jacked up its production about five years ago. The mayor said that’s around when the odor issues began, while DuBard and other residents say it’s been closer to 10 years. 

“I initially started complaining about it publicly in 2014,” said Emily Bennett, who lives two miles from the sewage spot and also said she gets headaches from the odor. “It’s progressively just gotten worse over the years.”

The Prairie Farms Dairy plant in Kosciusko, Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Records from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality show a dozen complaints the agency has received since 2021, several of which mention residents feeling sick from the smell. 

“I don’t know what it’s doing to us, but it can’t be good for us,” Black said. “Everyone says, ‘Get fresh air, get Vitamin D,’ and you go out and (the odor) hits you in the face.”

Kyle, who was elected mayor in 2021 after serving as an alderman, lives less than half a mile from the lagoon. Around February or March of last year, he remembered, the smell from the lagoon was especially pungent after a malfunction at the Prairie Farm facility.

“Prairie Farms did notify us that they accidentally broke a valve unloading a truck, and they dumped a full tanker load of milk into that lagoon at once,” the mayor recalled. “Now, you couldn’t hardly live in this town for about six weeks, it was so bad. I mean, it would gag you to death, it’s horrible.”

Kyle said he’s worked with the MDEQ to limit the amount of waste the plant’s allowed to dump in its permit. Prairie Farms buys 4 million gallons of water per day to wash its waste into the lagoon, he said. 

MDEQ spokesperson Jan Schaeffer said the agency couldn’t comment as it has a pending enforcement case against Prairie Farms. Since November, 2022, the state has cited the facility for five violations dealing with the content of its sewage disposal.

Aeration of one of Kosciusko’s lagoons, Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The facility’s wastewater repeatedly exceeded limits for “biological oxygen demand,” or BOD, which is a way of showing how much organic waste is in water. One test result from February 2023 showed Prairie Farm’s BOD output reaching over 16 times the legal limit. 

In January, when MDEQ issued the most recent violation, the agency told Prairie Farms that it was in “significant non-compliance,” and that the case was being turned over to MDEQ’s enforcement branch.

The dairy company, which did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for a comment, has had similar waste issues elsewhere. At a Prairie Farms location in Iowa, state regulators found that the company regularly exceeded limits for wastewater contaminants for a five-year stretch. 

Kosciusko’s Public Works Director Howard Sharkey showed Mississippi Today around the lagoon, and explained the various methods the city’s used to try to curb the odor. Its main strategy, Sharkey said, has been adding oxygen. The reason the smell is so bad during the colder months, he said, is because there’s less oxygen coming from the sun. 

Five years ago, the city spent $240,000 on aerators, including one attached to a tractor that Sharkey runs non-stop to keep the device turning. That’s in addition to the 40 bags of sodium nitrate he dumps into the lagoon every month. 

All of those expenses, he said, are just ways to create more oxygen. Of the roughly seven feet of depth in the lagoon, Sharkey added, two feet of that is just sludge that’s built up over the years.  

“We’re doing everything we can to keep these ponds aerated,” said Kosciusko Wastewater Department Superintendent Howard Sharkey, describing the use of a tractor that churns a devise to aerate a lagoon. The putrid smell emanating from the 20-acre lagoons permeate the city, Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“We’ve done everything (MDEQ) has told us we could do in the past to try to alleviate this,” Kyle said. “It’s not like the city’s not doing anything.” 

In all, the mayor said the city – which has a population just over 7,000 – spends about $212,000 a year just on that one lagoon. 

But new funding will give Kosciusko one more chance to eradicate the foul odor: Kyle said the city recently received $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to make infrastructure fixes, and that the plan is to spend all of it on dredging the lagoon, as well as raising its walls so it can fit more water to dilute the waste. The mayor said he hopes to have a contractor working on the project by the fall.  

Whatever it takes, Kyle hopes to cleanse the area of its reputation. 

“Every time anybody comes through town, it’s ‘what’s that smell?’” he said. “Ducks won’t even land on the lagoon it smells so bad.”

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