Battle over Vlasic site cleanup brewing

Public to comment at Dec. 17 meeting in Millsboro
Allen Harim Foods has plans to convert this former Vlasic pickle plant near Millsboro to a poultry processing facility. BY RON MACARTHUR
December 13, 2013

In an ongoing battle of words concerning a proposed poultry processing plant near Millsboro, it's a safe bet more than one salvo will be fired next week.

That's when the public will get a chance to comment on a state plan to clean up the former Vlasic pickle plant site. Cleanup is a necessary first step in the sale of the plant to Allen Harim, a South Korea-based company that plans to convert the Vlasic property into a chicken plant that could process as many as 2 million birds a week.

Opponents say risks of air and water pollution presented by the proposed plant are too high. Proponents, including state economic development officials as well as Realtors and the Millsboro Chamber of Commerce, say the plant will offer needed jobs, and state monitoring and environmental safeguards will protect the environment.

Allen Harim Foods, prospective buyers of the 107-acre site, want to follow a remediation plan laid out by state environmental officials to make way for planned upgrades. A public hearing on the state's plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17, at Millsboro Town Hall.

The Sussex County Board of Adjustment approved a special-use permit for the former pickle processing plant to be converted to a poultry processing plant. Vlasic operated the plant from the early 1970s to 2013; the facility is now owned by Pinnacle Foods LLC.

A permit was needed because the proposed use of the facility is considered a potentially hazardous use under Sussex County code.

Allen Harim officials said they plan to hire 700 employees and spend $100 million to upgrade the facility, including construction of a new wastewater treatment plant and installation of a rapid infiltration basin system for discharge of treated wastewater.

If the state's plan is approved, Allen Harim must follow a brownfield remediation process that includes long-term monitoring of groundwater test wells and drinking water wells at the site. If the results show contaminants are migrating or increasing, state environmental officials may require further remedial action.

Allen Harim received a brownfield development agreement for the entire site Aug. 26. The agreement provides for state grants and matching funds to assist the company in cleaning up the site.

The plan also calls for procedures to allow construction workers at the site to safely handle any contaminated soil or groundwater.

Allen Harim must still obtain several permits relating to air emissions, groundwater withdrawal and wastewater treatment before construction can begin.

During a brownfield investigation earlier this year, several chemicals were found at the site. Samples at a central location showed levels of tetrachloroethene and perchloroethene above the state's drinking water standard, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Nitrate was detected in several onsite wells, but the drinking water standard was exceeded in only one onsite drinking water well and two monitoring wells. In addition, lead exceeded the state drinking water standard.

Other chemicals – including iron, cyanide, mercury, methyl acetate and chloroform – were found in soil samples but none present a risk to human health, DNREC officials said.

Opponents: Site is toxic

Opponents, led by the grassroots group Protecting Our Indian River, have a long list of concerns highlighted by water and air pollution and truck and car traffic generated by a plant that could produce as many as 2 million chickens a week. They say the site is already toxic, and pollution is migrating to nearby residential wells.

Protecting Our Indian River filed an appeal asking Superior Court to overturn the county board of adjustment's approval of a special-use permit.

“Gov. Markell and other politicians have focused solely on a vacant site and jobs, and not the resources or impact on the tourist economy the area also depends on,” said John Austin, a board member and science coordinator of the Inland Bays Foundation. Austin, who plans to speak on behalf of residents in the area, said he has read more than 2,000 pages of documents related to the project.

The remediation report, filed by consultant BP Environmental of Easton, Md., is more than 780 pages.

Austin, who was employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than 30 years, called the project a square peg being forced into a round hole driven by the economics of buying a property at cents on the dollar.

Residents also say nearby off-site drinking water wells are contaminated, and they want further testing; DNREC officials respond that remediation testing showed no need to further test water or provide monitoring wells beyond the Vlasic site.

Austin says a DNREC memo dated May 19, 1997, indicated concern about the Vlasic site. “The contamination of off-site shallow domestic wells which lie north and northeast of the Vlasic facility have always been the major concern regarding the potential off-site groundwater impacts of the groundwater plume,” the memo stated.

“DNREC's obligation is to protect human health and the environment and not to sit and watch for a release that has already occurred,” Austin said. “No effort to date has been made by any state agency to assess the off-site private wells known to be at risk since 1997 or before.”

Deputy DNREC Secretary David Small said testing off site is not warranted because wells around the perimeter of the property have shown no significant traces of chemicals.

Small: Monitoring wells provide safety net

Small said environmental safeguards and monitoring would be in place at the site if the proposed plan is implemented. He said current air and water regulations are much stricter than earlier regulations. In addition, the remediation plan requires monitoring wells throughout the site. “A network of monitoring wells not in place previously will give us new information and much more protection for the health of residents and the environment,” he said.

Also, he said, Pinnacle's current water discharge permit – which Pinnacle plans to renew – will be reevaluated if the facility is modified as a poultry processing plant. “Pinnacle has the legal right to ask for an extension,” Small said.

But, he said, it's likely the permit would be modified based on the technology Allen Harim plans to use to treat and discharge wastewater. “They have experience with this. They have facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and understand what is required,” Small said.

Supporters: Good for economy, environment

Supporters of the project call those in opposition to the project a vocal minority. “We think it's important to add balance to the discussion,” said Bob Wheatley, incoming public policy chairman for the Delaware Association of Realtors. “There are plenty of folks who want to see this happen.”

Wheatley is also president of the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission.

The Delaware and Sussex County Association of Realtors and the Millsboro Chamber of Commerce all support the proposed project.

Amy Simmons, Millsboro Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the plant would have a positive economic impact on the community. She said new jobs would fill a gap left open when Vlasic closed its doors.

“I understand the environmental concerns,” Simmons said. “But DNREC has very tight control over Mountaire [a nearby poultry processing plant]. They will not let another company come in and not be held responsible to the same standards.”

Wheatley said the addition of 700 new jobs to the local economy can't be understated. “This is important to all of Sussex County,” he said.

Wheatley said misinformation and misunderstanding surround the proposed project. “We feel the issues residents are concerned about are being addressed,” he said.

“We have every confidence that Allen Harim Foods will be extremely good stewards of the Millsboro site or we wouldn't be putting our good names and our hard-fought reputations behind this project,” said James Diehl, director of marketing for the Sussex County Association of Realtors.

Wheatley said residents who oppose the project have put their concerns on record. “That helps to assure a deliberate effort is made to address those concerns. There will be plenty of oversight, which there should be. There will people watching to make sure all regulations are complied with.”

Wheatley said Sussex County is one of the leading poultry-processing counties in the nation. “It's what we do here; it's not like it's a new industry,” he said. “We have a lot of experience overseeing this.”

Rob Arlett, Sussex County Association of Realtors public policy chairman, called the project a positive and common sense one for the county. “This is also about property rights,” he said. “The owners of the building have the right to sell or lease their property.”

He said environmental concerns expressed by some are unfounded. “There is so much positive about this people should be embracing it. It's not everyday that an international company invests millions in Sussex County,” Arlett said.

He said the alternative is to leave a large industrial site vacant, which benefits no one.

Written comments on the remediation plan and report can be sent to: DNREC, 391 Lukens Circle Drive, New Castle, DE 19720. The deadline is 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17.

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