Allen Harim's poultry processing plant in Harbeson is facing dozens of citations for repeatedly releasing polluted wastewater into local waterways since 2012 – including a release with levels of bacteria 9,000 times the permitted amount.
Less than a year after state environmental officials signed off on a permit that allows the plant to increase its wastewater and stormwater discharge – making way for major increases in poultry production – they issued a notice of violation to the company for exceeding pollution permit limits on numerous occasions in 2012-13 and 2015-16.
But even before the new permit allowed wastewater discharges of 2 million gallons per day, Allen Harim's Harbeson treatment facility was struggling to keep up with the expired permit’s less stringent requirements. The plant discharges wasterwater into Beaverdam Creek, a Delaware Bay tributary.
On one day in summer 2013, the plant discharged wastewater that contained 1.7 million colonies of enterococcus bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, more than 9,000 times the permit allowance of 185 colonies. Documents from an open records request shared with the Cape Gazette earlier this year showed correspondence about the discharge between Allen Harim and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, but the agency issued no citation for the violation until Nov. 4 – more than three years after it occurred.
Under the new permit, Allen Harim is allowed to discharge wastewater with a lower maximum of 113 enterococcus colonies per 100 milliliters. Enterococcus is an indicator bacteria; when levels exceed permitted amounts, people who are exposed to the water are at increased risk for gastrointestinal diseases. Swimming and shellfishing advisories are issued when waterways exceed the cap of 185 colonies per 100 milliliters in fresh water and 104 colonies in salt water.
This summer, the plant increased production from about 1.1 million chickens per week to 1.8 million after closing its Maryland processing plant and consolidating operations in Harbeson. Allen Harim also received more than $11 million in low-interest state-administered loans as part of a $35 million upgrade at the plant.
“This is an ongoing problem because it's business at any cost in Delaware,” said Maria Payan of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, who has slammed DNREC and Allen Harim since the beginning of the year for exceeding permit limits and not issuing violation notices. “No matter how much money you throw at a problem, it's not going to change until you change this behavior. The blame goes directly on the agency that gave these permits out. I think it's really sad that the losers in this are the Delaware taxpayers.”
While the enterococcus violation could be considered the most serious violation listed in the Nov. 4 notice, the plant also significantly exceeded caps on ammonia, phosphorous, total suspended solids and nitrogen as recently as last month.
On at least five days in October, Allen Harim discharged more than 100 pounds of ammonia per day into the creek – more than six times the allowed 15.6 pounds per day limit. Too much ammonia can cause eutrophication, which encourages algae blooms that in turn can lead to fish kills due to a lack of oxygen. The violation notice notes the plant exceeded daily ammonia caps 21 times August-October 2016, and exceeded the monthly concentration limit for ammonia for both August and September.
In addition to ammonia, the violation notice also found the plant released too much phosphorous and nitrogen in summer 2016, when the plant was held to the new permit limits, including some releases that would also have violated the more lenient requirements of the 2011 permit.
Neighbors say continued violations of phosphorous and nitrogen limits are a problem.
“It's going to affect the water quality,” said Bob Lawson, president of the Harbeson Improvement Association and a lifelong farmer who lives across the street from the plant. “We, as farmers, have to be so mindful of nitrogen and phosphorous. And DNREC would stop us from applying certain things if we exceeded the limits – so what are they going to do about this?”
An Allen Harim spokesperson said in a prepared statement that the company is aware of “intermittent spikes in the levels of ammonia,” and pointed to ongoing upgrades at the plant's wastewater treatment facility. “We continue to work closely with DNREC and respond to any concerns as we transition into the second phase of our wastewater treatment plant upgrade,” the press release stated.
Allen Harim has 30 days from receiving the notice of violation to submit a plan outlining how the violations will be addressed. DNREC has required Allen Harim to identify the root cause of ammonia overages and correct deficiencies at its onsite wastewater treatment plant, increase sampling at one outfall and detail steps the company plans to take to avoid future violations.
No fine has been issued, but DNREC may pursue additional enforcement action. Penalties – which could add up to tens of thousands of dollars in fines – will be enforced if Allen Harim fails to comply with the actions listed in the notice, the letter states.
Allen Harim upgrading treatment plant
Allen Harim officials say the company is upgrading wastewater treatment facilities at its Harbeson plant, aided by more than $11 million in low-interest state-issued loans. These loans marked the first time the state granted loans to a private company from the Delaware Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund.
About the same time the state issued the loans, it also issued an updated National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which reduced caps on most pollutants compared to an expired 2011 permit that had been administratively extended for five years as a result of a backlog in DNREC's permitting office.
An NPDES permit sets caps on pollutants such as ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous, based on a specific watershed, to protect water quality. The new NPDES permit reduced the amount the plant is permitted to produce for most pollutants. The new 5-year permit took effect in February.
The 2016 permit requires an immediate 40-percent reduction of nitrogen loads, with a 42-month compliance schedule to reduce nitrogen levels by 84 percent compared to the previous permit. Allen Harim also was given 42 months to meet new, reduced limits on aluminum found in discharged wastewater.
The new permit increased the amount of water that can be discharged at the plant from 1.25 million gallons per day to 2 million gallons per day, making way for the plant to increase production from about 1 million chickens per week to 1.8 chickens per week. Caps on phosphorous, total suspended solids and ammonia were reduced in the new permit.
Upgrading the wastewater treatment facility and adding a water-reuse system is part of a $35 million investment at the plant, which includes upgrades for employee work areas and the consolidation of processing operations from the now-closed Cordova, Md., plant.