State approves plan to land apply poultry wastewater

Residents concerned operation could lead to contamination
November 11, 2017

State officials have approved a construction permit that will allow Allen Harim’s Harbeson plant to stop disposing of wastewater into a nearby creek and instead partner with Artesian Water Company to spray treated water on farm fields north of Milton.

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin issued an order Nov. 2 approving Artesian's amended construction permit for a large storage lagoon and spray-application operation off Route 30, north of Route 16.

Milton residents are up in arms about the plan, which they say might lead to groundwater and well contamination.

“We're disappointed in DNREC, in the governor, in our state representatives, our county representatives,” said Milton resident Anthony Scarpa. “We're just disappointed in the fact that the poultry industry trumps the health of the people living in Delaware, particularly in Sussex County.”

Scarpa, co-founder of the grassroots group Keep Our Wells Clean, said his group will appeal DNREC's approval of the construction permit.

“We're not going to just let this go by the wayside,” he said. “We have an obligation to do whatever we can to protect the people here.”

The project, known as the Artesian Northern Sussex Regional Water Recharge Facility or ANSRWRF, requires Allen Harim to treat its wastewater at its Harbeson facility before pumping the effluent eight miles to Artesian's site for spray irrigation. ANSRWRF was first proposed in 2007 as a regional wastewater treatment facility in light of a proposed – and later abandoned – mixed-use community called the Villages of Elizabethtown.

While Artesian officials have assured the public the company will not allow polluted wastewater to make its way to the new facility, Scarpa said opponents' fears are supported by a recent notice of violation issued to Mountaire Farms’ poultry processing plant in Millsboro. That plant, which also treats its wastewater before spraying it on nearby farm fields, has sprayed contaminated wastewater since 2015, polluting groundwater.

DNREC put Mountaire on notice Nov. 2 – the same day it approved Artesian's construction permit.

“This is what we're afraid of – that this situation is going to come to Milton,” Scarpa said. “That we'll have the exact same situation the residents of Millsboro are facing: contaminated wells, high levels of nitrates, bacteria and viruses as a result of the irresponsible behavior of a chicken-processing facility.”

Artesian and Allen Harim officials and state legislators say opponents have spread misinformation, including the false claim that the project would lead to chicken blood and guts swirling in a lagoon before waste is sprayed on farm fields.

That image couldn't be further from the truth, said Allen Harim spokeswoman Cathy Bassett.

“I think there's been a lot of misinformation out there and some folks are using this to their advantage, and that's unfortunate,” she said. “I think scare tactics are easy, and sometimes they're effective at scaring folks, but at the end of the day the science is there that land-applying treated wastewater is the better approach to take.”

At a public meeting in Milton this fall, retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist John Austin questioned the science in the construction permit application, namely the estimated rates for disposing of nutrients such as nitrates and ammonia. Excess nutrients such as nitrates can hurt the environment by encouraging algae blooms, and they also can pose risks to human health.

“I recommend everyone who has a well test it now,” Austin told more than 100 people at the Oct. 4 meeting. “Because in the future, if your well is contaminated, without some point of reference, you're going to be out of luck.”

Artesian officials say contaminated wells will not be an issue because the company plans to continuously monitor the wastewater treated by Allen Harim. In the event that wastewater does not meet standards, it will be sent back to the treatment plant before it gets to ANSRWRF.

“Allen Harim came to us because they wanted to do what's right and get out of the stream,” Rodney Wyatt, Artesian's director of operational compliance, told the Cape Gazette editorial board.

“We want to be good neighbors to the people we're serving,” added Artesian CFO and Treasurer David Spacht. “It's our reputation on the line.”

The project at a glance

Artesian has proposed a 22-acre, 90-million-gallon lagoon on a 75-acre site once slated for a full-scale regional wastewater facility on Route 30, just north of Route 16. The original plan called for a treatment plant and three smaller lagoons, with the Villages of Elizabethtown slated to be the first customer. State officials approved the original construction permit in 2013.

When plans to build Elizabethtown were abandoned, Artesian paused its plan to build the Artesian Northern Sussex Regional Water Recharge Facility, or ANSRWRF. It wasn't until Allen Harim approached Artesian to dispose of its Harbeson wastewater that plans for ANSRWRF resurfaced.

With a new customer and revised plans, which include delaying a treatment plant at ANSRWRF and building one large lagoon instead of three smaller ones, Artesian was required to apply for an amended construction permit. The proposed partnership also means Allen Harim will pay Artesian a $5 million impact fee from low-interest state loans originally granted to fund a water reuse system at the Harbeson plant.

Opponents argue Artesian should have been required to file a new construction permit application because the wastewater is from a commercial, not residential source, and because Artesian has decided to delay construction of a wastewater treatment facility onsite.

DNREC officials stated in the approval that it considers an amended permit application sufficient.

Artesian officials said the project isn't so different and that the company will build a wastewater treatment plant in a future phase, when demand requires it.

Opponents also have questioned the validity of two conditional-use approvals issued by Sussex County, both of which were granted in 2007 when ANSRWRF was proposed to serve Elizabethtown. Opponents say those conditional uses expired long ago; county officials assert they are valid because they were granted time extensions in 2013, and that work at ANSRWRF is considered “substantially underway.”

According to county code, conditional uses are valid for three years after approval, unless construction or use is substantially underway – generally defined as having a right-of-way cleared, stormwater management installed or other construction activities. Extensions are usually granted in one-year increments.

Sussex County Director of Planning and Zoning Janelle Cornwell, in a letter to DNREC officials Aug. 24, said both conditional uses for ANSRWRF are valid.

Artesian officials note that the recent DNREC approval is for a construction permit; specific requirements for water quality and other operations will be outlined in a later operations permit.

History of violations

Residents say a notice of violation issued to Allen Harim in November 2016 is cause for concern. DNREC officials found the poultry plant violated its wastewater disposal permit from 2012 to 2016, dumping wastewater containing high levels of nutrients and bacteria into Beaverdam Creek.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has yet to issue any fines or require any environmental remediation for dozens of violations, including a release containing 1.7 million colonies of enterococcus bacteria – more than 9,000 times the permitted level.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said investigating violations often takes a lot longer than most people would like.

“The sheer magnitude of requirements for sampling for permits and permit conditions is huge on a lot of these types of facilities,” he said. “It takes a while to go through all the information and legal pieces. It's not always satisfying to those who are around.”

The only documented follow-up provided by DNREC was a letter from Allen Harim to DNREC stating the reasons for the overages – notably one rain event, improper procedures and aged or malfunctioning equipment – have been corrected.

“Allen Harim believes that it has supplied all of the information requested by the Department and will continue to abide by the reporting requirements contained in its permit,” states the letter signed by Elio Battista Jr., an attorney representing Allen Harim.

DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti said while state code and state law allow DNREC to issue fines for violations, fines are not mandatory.

“DNREC enforcement of the issues as cited in the Allen Harim NOV is ongoing,” he said.

Scarpa and members of Keep Our Wells Clean say fines should be imposed.

“After 90 violations, you would have thought DNREC would have fined them,” Scarpa said. “Who's watching out for us?”