A plan to clean up a former pickle plant site near Millsboro has been approved by state officials, but opponents say they will appeal the decision.
The remediation plan for the former Pinnacle Foods/Vlasic site was approved Dec. 24 inn an order signed by Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O'Mara.
The plan includes long-term groundwater monitoring of the 107-acre parcel used as a pickle processing plant for nearly four decades. Allen Harim Foods LLC plans to buy the plant and convert it to chicken processing. The proposed poultry operation is expected to employ about 700 people. The pickle plant closed in 2012, resulting in 400 layoffs.
In September, the county's board of adjustment approved a special-use exception for the parcel, which could pave the way for the chicken-processing plant. The site is included in the state's brownfields program, which provides for state-funded matching grants to clean up contaminated industrial parcels.
Opponents say the remediation plan does not go far enough. Cindy Wilton, founder of Protecting Our Indian River, said this week her group will file an appeal within a few days. Groups and individuals have until Friday, Jan. 17, to appeal DNREC's decision.
She said she can't understand how DNREC staff could make a decision in a week during a holiday period, adding that none of the expert testimony presented during the Dec. 17 public hearing changed one sentence of the plan. “How could they have even gone over the information we gave them?” Wilton asked.
“The decision was already made that we were getting dumped on,” she said. “If Allen Harim was really listening to what is going on, they would walk away. Vlasic had a hard time with wastewater discharge; we can't imagine how Allen Harim will be able to deal with it.”
Robert Newsome, a DNREC public information officer, said it's not unusual for decisions to be made within a few days following hearings. “There is no standard for timing,” he said.
O'Mara: Plan is best interest of public
In his eight-page approval order, O'Mara noted the extensive environmental testing that was conducted at the site. “The plan is supported by a vast amount of data and analysis in the record of decision,” he wrote. “The department's approval of the plan as a final plan will allow the remedial action to commence, which is in the best interest of the public.”
O'Mara said the results of the ongoing groundwater monitoring will be made available to the public.
The secretary noted that many public comments opposed the proposed redevelopment of the property as a poultry processing plant. “The department understands the concerns of nearby residential property owners not wanting the closed industrial plant to be used for another industrial operation, but the future use of the site is not within the department’s authority to determine,” O'Mara wrote. “Sussex County government has the exclusive authority to determine if poultry production if a land use consistent with its zoning. The department's role is to ensure that the land is environmentally safe from contaminants for its intended use, and the plan indicates that it will be.”
In his recommendation to O'Mara, hearing officer Robert Haynes wrote: “I find that the department's plan is a reasonable and sound method of environmental remediation of the site. I find that the record supports approval of the plan based upon the data from a comprehensive site investigation.”
Haynes said the remediation plan's monitoring wells would protect nearby residents who were concerned about groundwater contamination spreading from the site. He said if monitoring results show migration of contaminants, other action will be required.
“The remedial action may include offsite wells and new wells as determined appropriate from the testing,” he wrote.
Members of Protecting Our Indian River say pollutants have already migrated from the Vlasic site. “We have presented proof there is a plume of contamination that is spreading from the site,” Wilton said.
Haynes said while Sussex County officials determined the site's suitability for use as a poultry plant, it's DNREC's responsibility to issue permits for air, water and wastes. The public will have an opportunity to comment on each permit application.
Wilton said a team from Brockovich Research & Consulting will return to the area in January to conduct more thorough water testing for metals in residential wells around the plant site. “This is something DNREC should be doing,” she said.
Nearby residents of the Possum Point community, concerned about pollutants left behind by Vlasic, contacted Erin Brockovich's consulting firm for help. Brockovich is an environmental activist whose fight against industrial pollution was recounted in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Appeal will delay process
This stage of the appeal process could delay a decision for more than half a year.
Depending on the outcome of the initial appeal, further delays are possible with appeals of board decisions to Superior Court and Delaware Supreme Court, said Gail Henderson, the board's administrative assistant.
Once the appeal deadline passes, the board has 30 days to schedule a hearing that must take place within six months. The appeals hearing resembles a courtroom proceeding, Henderson said, with a court reporter, witnesses, presentations of evidence and cross examinations. “The public can attend, but there is no public comment,” she said.
Sussex County members of the seven-member board include Michael Horsey of Laurel and Gordon Wood of Ocean View.
Deputy Attorney General Frank Broujos represents the board and another deputy attorney general will be assigned to represent DNREC. If the appeal is filed by an individual, an attorney is not required, but an attorney is required to represent an organization, Henderson said.
After the proceeding, the board will meet in executive session and come into public session to render its decision to deny or approve the appeal or remand the issue back to DNREC. “Typically, everything takes place the same day,” Henderson said, although some proceedings have lasted longer.
The board's decision can be appealed to Superior Court within 30 days.
December – Vlasic plant closes after nearly four decades of operation.
March 8 – Phase I environmental assessment of site is completed.
April 2 – Seoul, South Korea-based Allen Harim Foods announces plans to invest $100 million to convert the Vlasic pickle plant to a poultry processing plant and create as many as 700 jobs.
April 24 – Phase II subsurface environmental investigation study is completed.
July 11 – Allen Harim applies for state brownfield certification.
July 17 – Public notice of brownfield application is published.
Aug. 5 – Site is designated a certified brownfield.
Aug. 22 – Rep. John Atkins and Sen. Gerald Hocker voice support of proposed poultry project.
Aug. 26 – DNREC and Allen Harim enter into brownfield agreement.
Aug. 28 – Sept. 16 – Public comment period open for brownfield agreement.
Sept. 23 – Sussex County Board of Adjustment approves an application filed by Allen Harim Foods for a special-use exception for a potentially hazardous use – poultry-processing facility.
Nov. 21 – Community Involvement Advisory Council holds information session for residents.
Nov. 22 – Draft environmental investigation report of site completed.
Nov. 25 – Final investigation plan submitted.
Nov. 27 – Public notice on hearing for brownfield remediation plan published.
Dec. 17 – Hearing on brownfield remediation plan takes place in Millsboro.
Dec. 24 – DNREC announces adoption of brownfield remediation plan for long-term monitoring for groundwater at the site; 20-day appeal process is put into place.