State environmental officials heard a clear message from Milton-area residents: They don't want a poultry wastewater disposal facility near their homes, and beyond that, permits for the original project have expired.
Allen Harim has entered into a partnership with Artesian Resources Corp. to send 1.5 million gallons of treated wastewater and stormwater each day from its Harbeson plant to be disposed of by spray irrigation on more than 1,300 acres of fields and woods off Routes 30 and 16 just outside Milton town limits. Phase I plans for the Artesian Northern Sussex Regional Wastewater Recharge Facility also call for a 90-million-gallon storage lagoon and pump station on 21 acres, to allow for extra storage space when fields are too wet or frozen for spray.
Phase II calls for an on-site treatment plant to accept raw wastewater from existing and future developments.
During a July 27 hearing at Milton library, hearing officer Robert Haynes told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people that in 2013, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control approved a permit for construction of a wastewater treatment facility on the parcel. The subject of the hearing was to obtain comments on a requested amendment for two storage lagoons and spray-irrigation fields to accept wastewater from the Allen Harim plant.
The plan is for Artesian to install about eight miles of pipe running west on Route 5 from the Harbeson processing plant and then north on Route 30 to the new disposal site. Artesian officials estimate the cost of the project at $17 million. Preliminary work to install the pipe has already begun.
Allen Harim has spent about $11 million since early 2016 upgrading the Harbeson plant's wastewater treatment facility to meet more stringent wastewater and stormwater treatment regulations. Allen Harim will no longer discharge wastewater into Beaverdam Creek, a tributary of the Broadkill River and Delaware Bay.
DNREC's Jack Hayes said new regulations require wastewater to be treated at the highest level – the same as wastewater sprayed on golf courses and athletic fields, where direct human contact occurs. He said plans include a storage lagoon at the Harbeson plant as a safeguard. Permitted crops on the spray fields include corn, soybeans and wheat, he said.
The lagoon and fields, which would be permitted to receive up to 3 million gallons per day of spray-irrigated wastewater, provide enough capacity for future developments to use as well, Artesian officials said.
Artesian owns 75 acres and has obtained lease agreements for additional spray-irrigation parcels.
Residents oppose permits
Residents say not only have permits expired – the current permits do not even describe the project they were originally approved for.
Maria Payan of Selbyville, representing the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, said there should be a new application for the project because all previous permits have expired.
In 2013, a permit was issued for a treatment facility for 3,700 homes, but no homes were ever built, she said.
In addition, she said, the previous application does not include updated FEMA flood maps or new private wells now located in the area.
"This needs to be a new permit and not a fantasy treatment plant with lagoons and spray fields for Allen Harim," Payan said.
"Everyone in our neighborhoods with private groundwater wells are vulnerable to the proposed new disposal of millions of gallons of industrial wastewater daily from Allen Harim's poultry slaughterhouse," said Anthony Scarpa, co-founder of Keep Our Wells Clean, who requested the hearing.
Scarpa said his group will appeal if the decision goes in favor of the amended application.
Andrea Green, an attorney who lives in the nearby Pemberton subdivision, said the original conditional-use applications approved by county officials for a treatment facility and spray fields have expired. Those applications were part of the county's approval of the Villages of Elizabethtown subdivision, a 3,400-unit community that was never built.
"Even if the permits had not expired, they are not applicable to this application," she said. "This is an entirely different project not for homes but service for one commercial customer that is taking its problem eight miles north to Milton."
Paul Reed, president of the Sunland Ranch Homeowners Association, said all of the community's private wells, which do not appear on a 2007 survey because none of the homes had yet been built, are within 2,500 feet of a spray field.
He echoed the comments of several other people when he said the track record of violations at the Allen Harim plant is cause for alarm.
"An application of this magnitude requires third-party evaluation. We are looking for an independent authority to evaluate this application," he said noting the plant has been cited for dozens of violations over the past four years.
"There is not a lot of confidence in Allen Harim and DNREC," Payan said.
"It's an unproven project that is being given rights to proceed when the rest of us have no rights," said Milton resident Cathy Nagy.
"Why hasn't Allen Harim been held accountable?" she asked. "This should be taken off the books until all of the information is received. Allen Harim's failure is DNREC's failure."
John Austin, representing the Inland Bays Foundation, said a well survey is needed to indicate all new construction in the area over the past decade. In addition, he said, the application is for wastewater disposal and not treatment, which is inconsistent with the DNREC secretary's 2013 order for a treatment facility and storage pond to treat up to 1 million gallons of wastewater a day.
Hearing officer Haynes said the public record would be remain open for additional written public comment until 4:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 11. Haynes will present all documentation and make a recommendation to DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, who will then issue a ruling.
Comments can be mailed to Robert Haynes, Senior Hearing Officer, Office of the Secretary of Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, 89 Kings Highway, Dover, DE 19901.