They meet every week to drink coffee around the table, but this group has much more on their minds than small talk.
Every Monday morning, Possum Point area residents gather to discuss ways to stop a proposed chicken processing operation from opening at the site of the vacated Pinnacle/Vlasic pickle plant, just a few hundred feet from where they are gathering.
Recently the discussion focused on water contamination, which, resident Dotty LeCates said, tops the list of concerns. “We are talking about the health of a lot of people in this area,” she said.
Featured speakers include Kathy Martin, civil and petroleum engineer who specializes in environmental permits, nonhazardous industrial wastewater and surface impoundments and John Austin, a chemist for worked for the EPA for 33 years.
She said the state could clear up a lot of concerns by conducting thorough testing of nearby wells. Meanwhile, she said, the group is suggesting residents use bottled water.
Most who gathered are active members of Protecting our Indian River, formed to oppose the project, which proponents say could bring 700 new jobs to the Millsboro area.
The group contends that a large underground pollution plume has migrated from the Vlasic site and is threatening the drinking water of as many as 2,000 nearby residents.
Allen Harim Foods LLC, which bought Delaware-based poultry producer Allen Family Foods in 2011 after Allen filed for bankruptcy protection, announced last April that it planned to spend $100 million to convert the 107-acre Vlasic site into a processing plant producing raw and cooked poultry products.
The county board of adjustment granted a special-use exception for the plant, but activists have appealed that decision in Sussex County Superior Court. The organization also filed an appeal with Delaware Environmental Appeals Board against a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control order approving a remediation plan for the Vlasic brownfield site.
Operatiing on a shoe-string budget based on donations from concerned residents, the group also talks about ways to raise funds. Most of its treasury has been depleted to cover legal costs.
Discussions take the serious side
LeCates said a major function of the group is to educate its members. “We are learning a lot about the process and the environment,” she said.
“I wouldn't have moved here if I had known then what I know now,” said Barry Goldman, a resident of Wharton's Bluff.
The retired AT&T manager moved to the area 10 months ago. “I feel locked in now,” he said.
After he learned about the proposed chicken processing plant, he began to spend a lot of time doing research. He learned that besides the Vlasic brownfield site, there are two Superfund sites near the former pickle plant. In addition, he said, Millsboro's town water must undergo additional treatment because of a contaminated plume under part of the town.
“There are an overwhelming amount of polluted sites for such a small area,” he said.
The group points to statements made by Allen Harim officials that about 100 new poultry houses would be needed to supply the new processing plant. Officials say many of those houses would be built on existing poultry farms. Allen Harim already contracts with more than 200 independent family farms.
“There are 12 chicken processing plants in Sussex County, including a large one – Mountaire – just a few miles away from this site. Why are we the dumping ground for the chicken processing industry?” asked Cindy Wilton, one of the founders of Protecting our Indian River.
Group says plume is moving
While members of the group say contamination is leaving the site, state environmental officials say well monitoring has shown no proof that's the case.
Protecting Our Indian River raised $800 to sample 13 private wells with eight testing positive for cobalt. It's one of the contaminants found on the Vlasic site, said Maria Payan, representing Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
The group says their research shows that exposure to high levels of cobalt can damage human health. Cobalt is a naturally occurring element found in soil, water and plants, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and is not harmful to humans or animals in low doses. However, exposure to high levels of cobalt can affect the lungs and heart and cause skin irritation. Liver and kidney effects have also been observed in animals exposed to high levels of cobalt, according to the agency.
The results of well testing were turned over to the Delaware Department of Health and within a day, state officials were in the area conducting their own tests, Payan said.
“They were here at night testing using flash lights,” she said. “Obviously, there is a level of concern. The state has confirmed our results,” she said.
The group also points to a 1991 DNREC memo stating concern for a “slug of nitrate-laden groundwater heading in a northerly direction which, if not kept in check, might migrate off the site and be a potential threat to the numerous shallow household wells in the northeast side of Possum Point.”
The group has continually asked for more intensive testing of household wells in the area, tests that cost at least $600 each. “It's something the state should do,” Wilton said.
Jay Meyer, who writes a blog on the group's website, questions how the Markell administration could tout efforts to clean up the state's waterways and at the same time support a project that would discharge as much as 14 million gallons of wastewater a week into the Indian River in an area that already has environmental stresses.
College students visit the area
Protecting Our Indian River in early February hosted an environmental studies class and two professors from Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. Students are doing senior projects on the impact of the proposed project.
The students are tackling the issues from four sides, Payan said: science and research; the planning and zoning process; community impact; and politics. “This is something they would never be able to get in the classroom,” Payan said.
The group conducted interviews with residents, toured the area and met with Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and former Sen. George Bunting.
Students will continue interviews with people on both sides of the issues and present a report on their findings.