Work to commence on waste treatment at Karro's Cookstown factory

KARRO Food Group have assured residents that work will commence on the waste treatment system at their pig processing plant in Cookstown, in a move expected to reduce the odours exuding into the atmosphere, which one local said has “made her life miserable”.

At a meeting held last Tuesday at the pork factory on Molesworth Road, Paul and Virginia Montgomery were given assurances work on a new state-of-the-art effluent treatment plant will go ahead in April and is expected to be completed by September 2019.

The Montgomery’s claim at the meeting with Karro Cookstown’s representatives from Human Resources and Health & Safety, it was admitted there is an issue with odours and the upgrade works would help reduce the smell coming from the factory, despite labelling the issue “short term” in August during email correspondence seen by the Courier.

“As promised, and even with two throbbing and painful toes, I took a walk up and around the effluent treatment works and noted, as I would describe it, as a coming and going smell which seems to be dispersed by a changing wind direction,” read the email from the Karro representative, dated 7th August.

“The smell is diluted with the deodoriser spray and were [sic] I was standing, about 30 metres from your house, it appears not to linger for any significant time. Having spoken to the treatment plant manager, everything is working properly as far as the plant is concerned, however he did point out that some of the solid waste which is generated by the plant was recently removed by lorry, which may have caused a smell around the time of your call. This smell shouldn't have lingered though, however he will look into whether this short term smell can be minimised in the future.”

A second meeting was called after further complaints and Virginia telling this newspaper her family’s life had been plagued by the factory.

The Montgomery family have lived at the property on the Cloghog Road since 1985 and Virginia said the “ghastly odours” and “the sound of pigs screaming” arising from the adjacent factory – which is the largest single pig processing plant in the UK and Ireland with an estimated 1.2 million pigs processed annually – have “made her life miserable”.

Virginia said upgrade work is vital as day-to-day life for her family has been seriously impacted by living adjacent to the plant known by locals as the ‘bacon factory’, particularly as she battles health issues.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2017 and has also overcame three separate bouts of pneumonia; twice in one lung and a very serious case three years ago which affected both of her lungs, and while she does not directly blame the fumes on their ill-health, she says it certainly hasn’t helped and makes her feel “nauseous all the time”.

“The smell seeps through the walls and into your home. I have lost count of the number of candles/scents we’ve had to buy to try and kill the smell; we even changed to double glazing windows a few years back to see if it helped – we have tried everything,” stressed Virginia.

“It is vile, you can even taste it and feel it on your skin. Your clothes stink of it and I haven’t been able to hang any clothes outside for over four years, so we have had to tumble-dry everything.

“The smell lingers and gets into your hair and everything. The thing is, you’ll take a shower to get the rid of it, and within a few minutes the smell is back on you.

“It would get so bad at times we would get up and leave in the car and go for random drives just to get away from the house.

“We had a man working here and he told us he felt sick because of the smell. I actually walked into the kitchen where he was working one day and he was bent over as if he was going to vomit, he said, ‘how do you live here?’, it is the same with visitors.”

In a statement to the Courier, a Karro Food Group spokesperson confirmed the issue was being investigated and upgrade work is expected to begin in 2019.

“We are aware of concerns from a small number of local residents linked to perceived excessive levels of noise and smells at Karro’s Cookstown site. We are currently investigating these and are liaising with those who claim to be affected,” said the spokesperson.

“We take our operating obligations extremely seriously and are required to operate and comply with strict environmental health and safety regulations, specifically an Integrated Pollution, Prevention and Control (IPPC) Permit, which requires the factory to measure, manage and control the production of solid waste, water consumption, use of energy and the treatment of waste water effluent prior to discharge in to the public sewerage system.

“As part of ongoing initiatives to reduce water consumption, waste production and energy use, the Karro Cookstown site is investing in an upgrade to its existing waste water treatment plant, utilising best in class technology and processes. This major project, which has been planned in consultation with public agencies, will commence in April 2019, with a completion date scheduled for September 2019.”

The spokesperson added: “Karro Food Group, as the biggest employer in the Mid-Ulster area, is committed to investing in its people, its premises and the local community.”

The management of the Cookstown plant – which hires around 880 people – is run by Yorkshire based Karro Food Group, despite their takeover by CapVest Partners LLP in March 2017 in a deal believed to be worth around £180 million.

While Virginia accepts - and know’s better than most having worked there over 15 years during two spells - the factory is a major employer in Mid-Ulster and benefits the local and national economy, she believes more can be done to prevent such pungent odours from affecting those in nearby properties.

“The smell is 24/7, we cannot get away from it and it is really horrendous. And very year it seems to be getting worse as production increases. For years there has been talk about a new state-of-art system and tanks being put in place, but nothing has happened,” she said.

“They have told us work is going to begin in April, but I will believe it when I see it!”

The smell, which Virginia describes as a “singeing of hair” and “animal carcass’”, left the family considering moving out of the area, but following a stark discussion with an estate agent, they shelved the plans.

“People are probably thinking, ‘Why don’t they just move?’ – We have discussed selling it and getting away from this many times,” added Virginia.

“But last year we spoke to an estate agent and they said the factory had devalued the property and said, ‘who’d want it?’. If we could afford to move we would!”

Virginia’s diaries which document her distress for over a decade give a brief insight into the ongoing issues that affect their lives, but the fumes aren’t the only problem arising from the factory.

Her diary accounts reveal a number of entries regarding noise complaints, having been woke up to the sound of pigs squealing. While to most that would be disturbing, to Virginia and her daughter Laurenn, both of whom are vegetarian, it is particularly harrowing. In one account it details one sleep-deprived night she was woken at 1:30am, 4:30am, 5:36am and 7:40am.

“Oh, God! As you can imagine, it is absolutely heartbreaking,” Virginia said of hearing the pig’s distressed.

“When I am taking the dog a walk, I can hear the screaming while bringing them in. It breaks your heart!

“They tell us there is no live pigs brought into the factory late at night or early in the morning, but I have records of hearing and seeing lorries with pigs squealing, and being woke up to it is very distressing.”

A number of pieces of animal remains and debris have also landed in their garden over the years, including a pig’s trotter. There has also been issues with a “froff-like” substance coming from the fumes and landing on their property – and even on their skin as they walked outside.

The Montgomery’s have contacted the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to complain about the issues, which the body confirmed in a statement, however they said Karro’s plant are abiding by regulations.

“The Karro pig slaughtering/processing plant in Cookstown is regulated by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency under the Pollution Prevention and Control (Industrial Emissions) Regulations (NI) 2013. Emissions to air (including odour, noise, etc.), water and land are regulated with appropriate control measures contained within the company’s PPC permit,” a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) spokesperson said.

“NIEA staff have met with a local resident on a number of occasions to discuss their complaints and the actions which the company have taken and are planning to take to minimise the impacts of any potential emissions from the site.

“The company are planning further improvements on the site which will include a major upgrade to the on-site effluent treatment plant and a number of other features to help minimise any potential odour impacts. NIEA will continue to ensure that the company complies with the conditions within its PPC permit and respond to complaints received.”

It is estimated the Cookstown base processes around 45,000 pigs each week for delivery to their UK customer base which includes supermarkets Tesco, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Dunnes as well as smaller groups around the nation. They produce gammon, bacon, fresh pork, cooked meats and frozen sausages.

Karro’s Cookstown brand recently secured a bespoke listing with Asda to stock three Christmas gammon lines in all the retailer’s Northern Ireland stores as part of their seasonal range.

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