Before Allen Harim Foods LLC expands chicken-processing operations at its Harbeson facility, Maria Payan wants to make sure neighboring residents have all the facts.
Payan, of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, told more than 50 concerned citizens at Milton Public Library Feb. 16 that state officials allowed permits at the plant to lapse and that unearthed data shows the facility has previously exceeded pollution caps for wastewater and stormwater discharges.
“This is a challenge,” she said. “This company has been just unbelievable with what they have been trying to do in this state.”
Expansion plans include upgrades to the facility's wastewater treatment plant, addition of a water reuse system and increasing current production of about 875,000 chickens per week to nearly 2 million birds per week.
Plant officials say upgrades to the treatment plant are part of a $35 million upgrade to the entire facility, including upgrades to restrooms, the cafeteria, shipping and receiving, production lines and equipment. Increased operations will require upgrades to wastewater treatment capacities and 250 more employees, Allen Harim CEO Steve Evans said in a Feb. 17 email.
“Expanding our production capacity at Harbeson has been part of our strategic plan for the past few years,” Evans said. “Key to that expansion was the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant that will actually mean less discharge into Beaverdam Creek … This project is an environmental victory for our neighbors in Harbeson.”
Treated wastewater and stormwater from the plant is discharged through four outfalls into Beaverdam Creek, which flows into the Broadkill River.
A construction permit, wastewater discharge permit and state-administered loans totaling more than $11 million have already been approved for Allen Harim's plans to more than double its current poultry-processing operations in Harbeson.
“Our waters are pretty messed up. This is going to make it worse,” said Rich King, owner of DelawareSurfFishing.com. “Our waters, they're in trouble.”
A wastewater treatment plant construction permit and a discharge permit were approved in December 2015, following a public hearing in November when Payan and other concerned citizens questioned whether the plant has been in compliance with pollution standards.
Violations found in 2012 and 2013 at the Harbeson plant, discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests, show discharges significantly exceeded permit limits. In June 2013, discharge concentrations for fecal enterococcus, a bacteria that causes digestion-related illness in humans, were found to be more than 9,000 times permitted levels. In October 2012, phosphorus levels were six times the permitted concentration, with one outfall producing an average of almost 19 pounds per day.
“These things need to be addressed. It's public health,” Payan said, noting the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control failed to officially cite the plant for those violations. Those violations were found in letters between Allen Harim and DNREC, which are not available on the state department's website and were obtained by Payan through FOIA requests. In the letters, those overages are generally attributed to malfunctioning equipment and heavy rain events.
Payan said Allen Harim and DNREC must be held accountable for “repeated bad behavior,” including allowing the plant to continue operations on an expired permit for four years and a lack of action regarding a deteriorated storage lagoon that is full of vegetation and floating liners.
“The permit has been approved, so they did not do the right thing,” she said. “Things need to be done before we have a Flint, Michigan, before we have that kind of problem.”
State Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, encouraged residents at the meeting to notify state leaders and DNREC officials.
“Use the same message. Make sure the governor gets it, Secretary David Small, he wants to hear about this because he's the guy who has his hands on the wheel with this,” Smyk said. “I was pretty upset at the last meeting, but what I was upset about was that Allen Harim stayed silent.”
DNREC officials did not respond to the Cape Gazette's request for comment by press time.