By: Wolf von Baumgart, Staff Writer
The Sussex County Board of Adjustment, last Monday night, unanimously tabled a decision on Allen Harim LLC’s request to change the condition of approval regarding wastewater treatment at its storage facility near Millsboro. Fifteen persons present registered their opposition, while no one besides the applicant registered support.
Located between Iron Branch Road and Pinnacle Way near Millsboro, the former Vlasic pickle plant is the subject of major local controversy due to its adverse environmental impact on water quality including nutrient loading of the Indian River watershed and toxic contamination of nearby residential well water.
In 2013, Allen Harim proposed building a major poultry processing plant on its 107-acre brownfield site, that would have drawn an estimated 2.5 million gallons of groundwater per day, but abandoned its original proposal after abnormally high levels of contaminants including but not limited to: hexavalent chromium, aluminum and cobalt were detected.
The planned operation would have pushed a large plume of groundwater contaminants offsite as a result of sprayfield irrigation and resultant groundwater flow. Currently, the USEPA’s total chromium drinking water standard (promulgated in 1991) is 0.1 milligrams per liter (or 100 parts per billion).
Robert Gibbs, attorney for Allen Harim argued that the BoA did not intend to impose a major economic hardship on Allen Harim’s operations by requiring that all state and federal environmental wastewater treatment and disposal permits be secured and that treatment and spray field irrigation systems be fully functional as a condition of granting the company a special hazardous use exception for a poultry deboning and packaging operation.
In its move to reverse the board’s condition, Allen Harim contends that it could truck its approximate 40,000 gallons per day wastewater load to its existing so-called “state of the art” Harbeson, DE treatment facility while a new system is designed and built at the Millsboro site. This would avoid an estimated $100,000 per week economic loss while the plant is not operational.
The company also proposed building an unspecified advanced water re-use facility on-site and eventually piping the non-reusable wastewater eight miles to a future treatment facility to be built near Milton. This option has generated citizens concerns regarding the integrity of the Town of Milton’s public water supply.
The role of the Sussex County Board of Adjustment in protecting environmental health and safety matters was severely questioned during the hearing as was prior public access to key relevant documents. “We are not responsible for public health and safety in the same sense that DNREC is,” said SCBoA Chairman, Dale A. Callaway. Local residents stated that the BoA was well within its purview to require all permits and wastewater systems to be in place before the plant was allowed to operate.
Attorney Andrea Green, representing the affected citizens organizations “Save Our Indian River” and “Keep our Wells Clean” stated that Allen Harim’s request for withdrawal of the BoA’s original condition is “both procedurally and substantively deficient, citing expiration of the board’s ten-day appeal time limit and various “misrepresentations of fact” on the part of Allen Harim.
Maria Payan, consultant with the Sustainable Agriculture Project called attention to Allen Harim’s numerous violations of USEPA federal regulations and misrepresentation of proposed wastewater volume by a factor of 15 times or 600,000 gallons per day.
Independent Party of Delaware State Chairman, Donald R. Ayotte cited high concentrations of hexavalent chromium present at the site and was immediately gaveled down.
Conditions imposed by the Sussex County Board of Adjustment or the Sussex county Planning and Zoning Commission are often ignored with impunity as the County currently has no comprehensive legal mechanism and generally does not address noncompliance with various conditions of permitting on the part of major developers.
In a general public interest concern, the Delaware Coalition for Open Government has recently detailed its concerns on the BoA’s apparent lack of transparency in a letter addressed to Sussex County officials. Currently, public input is limited and controlled with applicants generally allotted more time than citizens groups to state their cases.
Emergent technical and environmental issues also center around Allen Harim’s current Harbeson wastewater treatment facility. While attorney Gibbs stated that the facility is “state of the art in Delaware” without citing supporting evidence, the 1970’s vintage facility of the former Allen Family Foods poultry plant, purchased by South Korea based Allen Harim LLC, after the former filed for bankruptcy is actually a mixture of older and newer retrofitted wastewater treatment technology.
The plant normally runs 24 hours per day with an estimated 2 million gallons per day of wastewater treatment capacity. DNREC has assessed Allen Harim with approximately $250,000 in fines and penalties for wastewater violations at the Harbeson plant.
The BoA is scheduled to render a decision at its upcoming September 10 meeting.