Health department shuts down Memphis cotton gin for permit violations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Shelby County Health Department shut down a Memphis cotton gin on Wednesday.

Planters Gin Company, Inc. on Mallory Avenue was closed for permit violations and pollution concerns.

Planters Gin, founded in 1947, reprocesses waste cotton taking short fibers that remain after the normal ginning process and clean them for use in textiles. It is located in an industrial area near the river in south Memphis.

Records show the owner, E.W. Atkinson Jr, failed to renew his local air permit for a year and a half.

The health department confirmed to FOX13 that the plant must immediately stop operations because it doesn’t have the required permits.

“It’s just like driving without a license,” said Larry Smith. “It’s part of the process. It’s about human health and safety and that’s all thrown out the window when you don’t have a permit.”

Smith is in charge of pollution control for the Shelby County Health Department. He said the gin’s owner has avoided renewing a local air permit for the past year and a half. Smith noted these permits help the department ensure you’re not breathing dangerous pollutants in the air.

“It’s a particulate matter that goes in your lungs, and you can’t get it out. That’s why it is so important to control the stuff with proper machinery, mechanisms, and so forth,” said Smith.

FOX13 spoke to a woman who lives nearby who said the plant owner has listened to her concerns.

“My car got messed up from the cotton, and I asked him to paint it, and he did, and the cotton came up in my yard. I asked him to pick it up he did. It’s really better since he did everything he needed to do.”

A letter from the health department to the gin’s owner dated June 22 said the plant had failed to pay its 2019 air emission fees, failed to pay its 2021 annual operating fee, failed to submit its 2020 actual emission form, and failed to renew its operating permits.

There was an inspection in May, but according to the documents, the plant only kept data on the number of cotton bails processed and did not even have an estimate on the emissions coming from the plant.

The health department sent a certified letter in June but never received an application for a permit.

The department said it gave plenty of opportunities to walk the owner through applying.

FOX13 researched how a lack of a permit for a plant impacts people.

According to the health department, cotton gins are different than usual plants. Instead of smoke, they emit what’s called particulate matter. It’s basically dust that can get into the air. The health department compared it to ‘black lung’ that coal miners can get except, in this case, they call it brown lung, and for the people who live nearby, it is a real concern.

In the following video, FOX13 Meteorologist Yasser Kishk explains how particulate matter travels through the air.

FOX13 was able to go inside the gin and speak to the owner.

When FOX13 asked about the shutdown, the plant owner called this a mix-up. He said he had questions about how to get the paperwork done.

But the health department paperwork we obtained said the department repeatedly tried through email, fax, and in-person visits to get him to comply.

Planters Gin has had other issues in the past.

In 2000, Planters Gin had to pay a $250K fine for air pollution violations. That penalty came just a year after SCHD cited the company for being out of compliance with its pollution permits. Tests of smokestacks revealed the company was violating emissions limits on particulates like dust.

In 2014, employees filed a federal complaint against a former supervisor, alleging he made racist comments and enforced a whites-only policy at work.