By a 4-0 vote at its Sept. 23 meeting, Sussex County Board of Adjustment approved a special-use exception that could pave the way for a poultry plant on Iron Branch Road near Millsboro. Allen Harim Foods LLC has announced plans to convert the former Pinnacle Foods Vlasic pickle plant to a chicken processing plant with the promise of as many as 700 jobs.
Opponents say they plan to appeal the decision to Superior Court. Opponents rallied in front of the county administration building to protest the plant prior to the meeting. Dotty LeCates, who lives in Possum Point across the road from the plant, said she has nothing against Allen Harim. “But I do have a problem with this location,” she said. “The governor is talking about all of these new jobs, but what price to our health will we have to pay.”
LeCates, who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, said she and her neighbors want the state to test their wells because they fear contamination from other industrial uses in the area.
Support from governor, legislators
The final purchase of the plant is contingent on a series of environmental permits that have yet to be issued by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. DNREC permits needed include air quality and water discharge among others.
In spring 2013, South Korea-based Harim bought Allen Family Foods, keeping the headquarters of Eastern Shore chicken production in Seaford. The company operates plants in Harbeson and Cordova, Md. The former pickle plant in Millsboro sits on 107 acres and includes 112,000 square feet of processing space and 360,000 square feet of warehouse space.
The company's plans to purchase the Pinnacle property and invest $100 million in retrofits and upgrades were announced earlier this year. Gov. Jack Markell and local legislators, including Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, and Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, have endorsed the project as a economic boon to the Sussex economy.
“When completed, this project will be a true Delaware success story - improving our economy and protecting our environment, all in one,” the two legislators wrote in a joint press release. “We have studied Allen Harim's plans and discussed the plant with company executives and state officials and firmly believe that the company will take every step possible to ensure that residents and the environment are not adversely affected.”
The company will also be required to clean up an existing brownfield site during its renovation process.
Board of adjustment member Norman Rickard, who made the affirmative motion, read a long statement supporting the board's decision. He said he's convinced state agencies will ensure that Allen Harim will have proper safeguards in place to protect the waterways and air with state-of-the art technology. He said plant officials would have noise and odor abatement systems in place and landscaped buffers would shield the plant from the surrounding area.
Rickard said trucks would have to follow a prescribed truck route as laid out by DelDOT. He said DNREC officials had no objections to the proposed plans for the plant. “There will be no adverse impact on public health or the environment,” he said. “This has been an industrial site for 40 years, and there are several other industrial sites in the neighborhood.”
The Pinnacle plant closed last year resulting in 400 layoffs of full- and part-time workers.
Pending permit approvals, Allen Harim expects to finalize the purchase by the end of 2014 and start operation in early 2015.
Opponents call in Brockovich team
Cindy Wilton, a member of Protecting our Indian River, said she contacted the office of Erin Brockovich in Claremont, Calif., for assistance. Brockovich is a well-known environmental and consumer advocate who was the subject of a hit 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts.
An environmental team from her office came to Millsboro Sept. 11 to do a site evaluation and has plans to return, Wilton said. “They will be back in a few weeks to do random well testing because no one has a concern for the people that live nearby the Vlasic/Pinnacle Plant that left the ground contaminated,” Wilton said.
In a letter to the board of adjustment, Robert Bowcock, chief environmental investigator working with Brockovich, wrote: “Based on the clearly documented groundwater contamination and potential human and/or ecological receptors at the site and in the immediate vicinity, further site and risk evaluations are warranted.”
LeCates said residents want officials to consider the entire picture of industrial impact on the area, and in particular, the impact on Indian River. The Pinnacle plant is in close proximity to other industrial sites, including the NRG generating plant, a Mountaire poultry processing plant and Millsboro's wastewater treatment facility.