Sacramento rendering plant looks for new home

The sign above the door at the Sacramento Rendering Company plant offers a blunt clue about what lies inside. It reads: “RECEIVING DEADSTOCK.”

Michael Koewler, whose family has run this plant for four generations, swings the door open. There, on the concrete floor, is a 5-foot-high pile of dead and bloated dairy cows. They’d been dumped in a heap off a truck that morning. They’ll be skinned, cooked, compacted and sent back to market as pet food or poultry feed.

This is the farm-to-fork capital’s gritty little back-room kitchen, tucked in the rural reaches of east Sacramento County. Everything that arrives here – the animal carcasses, the supermarket butcher scraps, the used restaurant grease, even the occasional zoo elephant and amusement park whale – is turned into usable products, including biofuel, oil for rubber products and tallow for soap.

The plant is the ultimate recycler. But its task is not pretty, and despite pollution control efforts, it sometimes emits an odor that can be disconcerting, especially when people think about what it comes from.

For years, that wasn’t a problem. It is now. Sacramento County and Rancho Cordova have said yes to developers’ plans for tens of thousands of new homes in the fields around the rendering plant. More development proposals are coming in annually. As homes have gone up, so have the complaints. Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District officials say they’ve received hundreds of odor complaints in recent years from new downwind neighborhoods such as Anatolia and Kavala Ranch.

The writing is on the wall, company president Koewler says. Just past its 100th birthday, it’s time for one of Sacramento’s oldest businesses to move – again. Koewler hopes it will go smoother than last time.

Co-founded in 1913 by Koewler’s great-grandfather Al Koewler, a post-Gold Rush butcher from Ohio, the original Sacramento Reduction and Tallow Works conducted business for years in relative seclusion in a boggy area on Riverside Boulevard south of Sutterville Road. Then suburban development arrived.

In 1956, led by an attorney who bought a house a block and a half from the plant, angry Land Park residents marched on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, complaining of ripe odors, flies and noisy truck deliveries. The county sanitarian said he did not believe the plant was a public health menace. But the Board of Supervisors directed the district attorney to take action against the facility, winning a court order to close it.

“I will not have these people suffer another year of this,” Superior Court Judge Warren Steel said at the time.

With the supervisors’ blessing, the company moved that year to its present site 14 miles east of downtown. Under Mather Air Force Base’s flight noise zone, the site seemed immune to suburban housing.

“This was the boondocks,” said Tim Gover, a second-generation supervisor at the plant who grew up in a company house on site.

But the base closed in 1993, opening the door for development to push east. Now, the company again is an unwanted neighbor. The first developers in the area 10 years ago took Sacramento Rendering to court, calling it a nuisance. A judge tossed that lawsuit out. With developers kicking in a substantial portion, the plant installed more than $5 million in odor control upgrades.

The technology helped, but didn’t completely eliminate the smell. Koewler and partners now have an “exit strategy.” They hope to win county approval to rezone roughly 800 acres of land around the rendering plant site, then sell the land to developers and use the proceeds to build a new plant elsewhere. The supervisors are expected to review the request next summer or fall.

The question is, where in Sacramento is a suitable site for an animal cookery?

‘It hits you’

Despite advances in technology, plant officials say they cannot guarantee a new rendering plant will be odor free. Ideally, the plant would be located away from houses, but with access to existing sewer facilities.

There is a large map pinned on Koewler’s office wall, with pencil marks on it: One mark is on county land at Sacramento International Airport. There are marks near Elk Grove and Winters. Other marked sites include the county sanitation plant, the former Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, and ranchland between West Sacramento and Woodland.

“Nothing has been decided, nothing thoroughly vetted,” Koewler said.

Legally, the plant does not have to move, he pointed out. “We are doing what we feel is the responsible thing,” he said. If county officials are cooperative and the economic market solid, the plant could be gone in a few years. But, it may take five years or even more, Koewler warned.

Officials with both Sacramento County and Rancho Cordova say they’d like the plant to move.

“In our estimation, it is in the wrong place,” said Rancho Cordova Planning Director Paul Junker. Urbanization is the best thing we can see happening.”

Already, the Kavala Ranch and Anatolia neighborhoods have brought hundreds of homes northeast of the plant; the Mather development has done the same just northwest. In the years to come, the expectation is for thousands more homes to the west, north and east.

The county is looking to entice a university to build a major campus on property across the street from the plant, directly downwind from the vent stacks.

“As development gets closer, the chance of getting more complaints, because of sheer numbers, is greater,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli. “There are times of the year, in hot spells, it is certainly a distinctive odor. Sometimes in fall, and winter, too.”

How bad is the smell? It depends on who is doing the describing. The Kavala Ranch subdivision is a neat enclave of winding streets and cul-de-sacs, where one- and two-story houses sell in the $300,000s and $400,000s. On a recent visit, there was no smell, despite a breeze from the plant direction

But there are other days, some residents say, when the air carries a pungent, earthy odor, enough to make the nostrils twitch. On the worst days, some say, the smell prompts people to shut their windows.

Christina Malato and her family have the distinction for now of living in the closest house downwind from the plant, three-quarters of a mile away in Kavala Ranch. Malato said the real estate agent told them when they moved in a few years ago that the plant would be gone by 2013.

“It’s horrible,” Malato said of the smell, standing on her front porch. “Like burning flesh, although I’m not sure what that smells like. It will linger in the summer. You open the door and it hits you.” One day, she checked her baby’s diaper, she said, only to realize the smell was emanating from the plant.

Dozens of new homes are going up now just blocks from Malato’s house. When potential buyers ask, Malato says she feels obligated to tell them about the odors.

Gordon Jones, Northern California president of Lennar Corp., the Kavala Ranch developer, declined comment when contacted by The Sacramento Bee.

Restaurant grease, butcher scraps

Though the plant makes its presence known in the area, what happens inside its walls is a mystery to many. It is one of a handful of such facilities left in the state. In Northern California, there are plants in Turlock, Chico, and on a pier in San Francisco.

Sacramento Rendering’s contracts are extensive. Koewler said his company collects used cooking grease at 4,500 restaurants in Northern California and northern Nevada, from the upscale Ella Dining Room & Bar in downtown Sacramento to fast food outlets such as McDonald’s.

That includes 1,300 pounds of kitchen grease a week from nine restaurants in the local Paragary group. “If they didn’t pick it up, I suppose it would go into to the landfill, which doesn’t seem like a great idea,” said executive chef Kurt Spataro.

The plant’s trucks collect the butcher scraps from Safeways, Raleys and other supermarkets in Northern California, as well as from slaughterhouses, and take in “fallen animals” from ranches and dairies – the 4 percent annually that die of natural causes.

Operating at a separate facility on site, an affiliate company cremates pets sent by veterinarians, the SPCA and other groups, Koewler said. Some ashes are returned to the pet owners. Some are sent to a landfill. The pets are not part of the rendering process, however, Koewler said.

Stepping through the “deadstock” door recently on a tour of the plant, company president Koewler appeared not to notice the smell.

“Those you see there,” he said, pointing to the pile of cows, “they were picked up at dairies. All the material comes in, it is weighed on the scale. We take the brain and spinal cord off. That has to be disposed of.”

Some of it is sent to the University of California, Davis, for “mad cow” disease research.

Koewler, 49, dressed in neat slacks and golf shirt, has the look of a man headed to the country club. There is a photo on his office wall of Koewler and Tiger Woods hunched together over a putt at a fundraiser golf tournament. But the rendering plant is home.

A past president of the National Renderers Association, Koewler grew up in the business, cleaning scrap vats and digging fence posts with his grandfather and making animal pick-up runs with his uncle. He went to college and planned to be a commodities trader in the rendering industry. In the end, though, he assumed the family mantle, like three generations of Koewlers before him.

‘No waste’

The company does a better job these days of controlling odors. A sign at the front gate – with a cartoonish drawing of a dead steer, X’s for eyes – reads: “SRC will not accept dead animal drop-offs Saturday afternoons, Sundays and holidays.”

Koewler said they put the sign and a gate up to stop people from dropping animals on the lot when the plant was closed. The capper was when a major producer of supermarket poultry dumped thousands of pounds of dead chickens on a Saturday afternoon.

“Everybody shows up to work on Monday and here is this Mount Kilimanjaro of chickens, and you could smell it from here to almost Folsom Boulevard,” Koewler said. “We got a rash of complaints.”

Once it is delivered by truck to the site, “product” is run through a metal detector, then a grinder. From there, it is fed through cookers for about 90 minutes at 270 degrees. “We’ll pump out 45,000 to 48,000 pounds an hour,” said plant manager Bill Eckstein. “It’s all usable. There is no waste.”

The dry product is compressed into a cake, then milled into a flour-like state. Some goes to ranch feed lots. Some goes to companies that turn it into pet food. Some to biodiesel plants. Protein from cows and sheep cannot be fed to those animals, to guard against disease spread, Koewler said. But it can be fed to chickens.

The exhaust air from the process is burned at 1,800 degrees in a thermal oxidizer. That incinerates most of the tiny particles that cause odors. The exhaust is then given a water bath to cool it off and settle out more particles before being released through the vent stacks.

Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District records show that the rendering company has been fined twice in recent years, in 2005 and 2007, for failing to keep the thermal oxidizer at a minimum heat. Officials with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which regulates rendering plants, said their records show no adverse findings for the plant.

Koewler is proud of what he and his employees do. He and others in the industry have launched a campaign to explain rendering, hoping to remake their image.

“We were green before green was cool,” he said. “The things we are doing in this industry should be applauded. We are saving landfills. We are re-using products. We are doing things for public and animal health.”

Heading across the lawn from the plant to his office, Koewler wipes the soles of his shoes on the grass. It’s a habit.

He isn’t betting the plant’s upcoming relocation will be the last. “I can probably expect in 50 years, the plant has to be moved again,” he says. “Like a 50-year itch.”