A group of Baltimore scientists says the Sussex County Board of Adjustment needs more information before deciding whether a proposed Millsboro chicken plant will affect public health.
The Sussex board is expected to decide next month on a special-use permit request for Allen Harim, which plans to open a chicken processing facility. A permit is required because the plant, which could process 350,000 to 2 million chickens per week, is considered a potentially hazardous use.
In a letter sent to board officials, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, housed in the Bloomberg School of Health, say increased poultry processing in Sussex County could spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment because antibiotics are used in chicken feed, which ends up in the poultry waste spread on agricultural fields throughout the region.
“This is especially concerning because poultry producers in Sussex County already raise approximately 211 million broiler chickens per year, which is more than any other county on the Delmarva Peninsula,” states the letter.
In addition to the spread of bacteria through poultry waste, trucks transporting the chickens will also release the bacteria, scientists said.
In one study conducted on Route 13 near Salisbury and cited by the Johns Hopkins group, poultry trucks were found to spread harmful bacteria as they drove through communities.
“Researchers consistently detected drug-resistant bacteria in the air and on surfaces inside vehicles while driving with their windows down behind poultry trucks,” states the letter. “This study exemplifies one facet of the increased burden that the community will face as a result of having hundreds of thousands of birds transported to the proposed processing plant each day.”
Maria Payan, a consultant with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and opponent of the Millsboro chicken plant, said state and county officials need to collect more information to determine the health impact of replacing a pickle plant with a chicken processing facility.
Payan asked Johns Hopkins scientists to review reports sent to the board of adjustment. She said she hopes the letter will make officials slow down and consider all sides of how poultry operations affect residents.
“The information held by the board of adjustment doesn't include health data,” Payan said. “This is too big of an operation, and it is going to have a major impact on the community.”
About four weeks ago, a group of concerned Millsboro residents formed Protecting our Indian River, said Kenny Haynes, who lives in Possum Point about 200 yards from the former Vlasic pickle plant.
Payan and the Millsboro group have started a Facebook page to raise awareness of the proposed plant.
Haynes said the group hand-delivered more than 200 comments from Millsboro residents to the board of adjustment Aug. 7 before the public comment period ended.
Haynes and his wife live on the edge of Wharton Branch, which meanders around Millsboro, passing the Indian River power plant, before it empties into Indian River and the Inland Bays.
From their perch on the edge of the creek, the Haynes have seen cloudy and bubbly water that they attribute to wastewater releases from the former pickle plant.
“These releases often happen on the weekend when the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is closed,” said Joanne, who is concerned about the large amount of water – estimated at more than 800,000 gallons a day – that will be used at the proposed Allen Harim plant.
The Haynes’ neighbor Jay Meyer said he enjoys boating and crabbing in the creek, but worries about increased pollution coming from a chicken processing plant, where live chickens will come in and packaged food products will go out.
“Someone needs to investigate what is coming out of the plant and how it will affect the residents, but also how it will affect fish and crabs,” Meyer said.
“Officials need more information before they can decide what public health effect the new plant will have,” Payan said.
The purchase of the 107-acre property is still pending as Vlasic owner Pinnacle Foods and Allen Harim officials broker an agreement to clean up the property. It was designated a Brownfield site by Delaware officials July 11 because of potential land and water contamination, and Allen Harim is working with state officials to develop a remediation plan. Once a plan is finalized, residents have a right to comment and request a public hearing.
Scientists said adding about 50 trucks per day on rural roads would contribute to increased pollution. During a public meeting last month, Allen Harim officials said truck traffic could be as high as 80 trucks per day. Scientists also said safety protocols need to be put in place to protect the health of plant workers who may be exposed to chemicals and pollutants.
“There are significant gaps in the information provided thus far by the applicant and state agencies,” said Johns Hopkins scientists. “If the poultry plant is ultimately permitted, strong monitoring requirements should be set up in order to alert relevant state agencies immediately if operation of the plant causes issues that threaten public health.”
The Center for a Livable Future is an academic research and educational center that investigates the intersection of food systems, public health and the environment, said Dr. Jillian Fry, one of the scientists contributing to the letter. The opinions of the four scientists writing the letter do not necessarily reflect the views of Johns Hopkins, Fry said.
“We wrote the letter about the proposed poultry processing plant because the ways we produce and process chickens significantly impacts the environment and public health,” Fry said. “We think decision makers and citizens need to be aware of the potential negative consequences of having the processing plant in their community.”
A date has not been set for the Sussex County Board of Adjustment to review Allen Harim’s plan.
For more information on the center, go to www.jhsph.edu/clf.