A local group of concerned citizens were reinvigorated earlier this month, with professional advice on how to fight what they see as environmental injustice.
In Millsboro, the group Protecting Our Indian River has argued that the prospective Allen Harim chicken processing plant will ruin an already fragile ecosystem — especially when slaughtering “an estimated 2 million birds a week and discharge[ing] its waste into our already contaminated waters.” They are especially concerned that the former Vlasic Pickle plant on the site has already left chemicals and carcinogens that have been leeching into local water and soil.
POIR recently invited Sacoby Wilson, assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, to share the secret of achieving environmental justice.
As described by Wilson, “environmental justice” is a social movement to protect groups that are disproportionally exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions, such as landfills, incinerators or confined animal feed operations.
“It’s really a marriage between the environmental issues and civil rights,” Wilson told a room of citizens that included representatives of NAACP, the League of Women Voters and elected officials.
Wilson has worked in rural North Carolina, where dense hog-farming operations were a particularly heavy burden to locals who relied upon well water. People suffered “differential burden” based on their race, socioeconomic status and access to water, he said. These communities often lack a collective voice, lack access to resources and economic capital, and lack access to good infrastructure, according to Wilson.
Large-scale farming is different from family farming because it’s “a lot of waste that’s concentrated in a small area,” Wilson said.
The odor itself is unpleasant, and that often indicates people are exposed to pollutants, microbes and antimicrobials that can suppress the immune system and cause illness, he noted.
Meanwhile, one bad storm can flood the facility and create a “toxic soup,” which Wilson said North Carolina suffered in Hurricane Floyd.
Delaware has an extremely high density of chickens. (Wilson estimated 581 chickens per acre.) Animal processing also has a lot of leftovers, including bones, blood, manure and feathers, plus water used to clean the facilities. Companies can render that material, compost, incinerate or more.
“If they … go into what they call ‘rapid infiltration system,’ like digging a big hole in the ground and throwing the water down, how long would it take before our water systems are messed up?” asked Ken Haynes of Millsboro. “People in my community have anywhere from 25-foot to 50-foot wells.”
Even if Allen Harim cleans and flushes the water into the river, “12 million gallons of fresh water will change the ecosystem,” Haynes said. “There goes the fish. There goes the crabs.”
“So the whole ecosystem will be changed,” Wilson said. Professional and recreational watermen could be affected.
Jane Hovington of NAACP recalled another location that was once said to be uncontaminated. Then she saw someone walking the field in a hazmat suit.
“Give it five years down the road, and you’ll see what will happen,” Hovington said. She said that, near the Georgetown Perdue plant, eight families in a small neighborhood had cancer diagnoses.
“They determined that Sussex County has a high rate of cancer, but what they have not been able to tell us is what it is,” Hovington said of the cause. “The only common denominator is water. There’s not chicken houses in every neighborhood.”
“The thing about cancer is there’s a lag effect,” said Wilson. There is time between exposure and diagnosis, he explained, so it’s hard to prove cancer clusters.
Wilson’s advice: Contact legislators.
“It’s your job as a citizen to let them know what they should be doing. If you’re not there, letting them know what you need, what you want,” he said, someone else will.
Rich Collins, executive director of the Positive Growth Alliance, was in the audience for Wilson’s talk, the day after winning the Delaware District 41 representative’s seat.
“If you take on the entire chicken industry — look how many folks are in that industry,” he said, warning that if an effort was made to shut them down, “they would need a room five times bigger than this room to hold them all. You’re gonna need to figure a way to work with these folks.”
Collins noted that he had farmed for 35 years and only got several dollars per bushel of produce. Today, a combine costs $400,000.
“Things have changed, but these are still families, for the most part. They have big chicken houses now because you can’t make any money with a small chicken house.”
As for water cleanliness, Collins said he has heard “people have literally drank the water out of that sewage treatment plant. That is the kind of technology we have today.”
Audience members expressed frustration with his response.
“I’m just telling you there are ways to deal.” Collins said. “I’m not telling you not to be concerned.”
However, he said, he had heard from an attorney friend that Protecting Our Indian River’s litigation is doing “very well” in challenging the Sussex County’s Board of Adjustment’s approval for the slaughterhouse.
Agitate from the outside
Jay Meyer said the people of Protecting Our Indian River have felt ignored. FOIA requests have gone unanswered or were the subject of excessive document charges, and the Attorney General hasn’t taken up the cause.
“Your department of environment is supposed to be there on your behalf. … That’s your job as citizens. … You have to hold them accountable,” Wilson said. “If they’re not doing their job from the inside, you have to agitate from the outside.”
Sometimes people have to go old-school, Wilson said — get young people involved, use hard data and maybe do some sit-ins. “You gotta show your face.” However, he admitted that the same people who were protesting in the 1960s and ’70s are still here, protesting in their own 60s and 70s.
He also encouraged partnerships between concerned citizens, non-profits and student groups.
“Use the administrative process to get injunctive relief,” Wilson said, “finding some angle [to say] ‘This group has been disproportionately impacted.’ Find the state regulation that should be protecting your well water.”
People need to know the laws, and Wilson’s department can give them data and statistics to back it up, he said.
“Instead of taking it to the child, which is the State, take it to the parent, which is the federal government. You always want to go to the parent to deal with the issues of the children,” Wilson said.
Protesters can also roll acts into a single punch, using the Toxic Substances Control Act, Clean Water Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, HUD Affordable Housing or even Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to attain their goals.
“‘There’s a gap here, and there’s a gap here.’ Then bring them together in an administrative complaint.” Or, he suggested, find a concentration of vulnerable individuals, such as daycares and nursing homes in a certain radius. Then find the gaps where people are not being protected.
“Find laws that protect certain groups. Bring ’em all together,” Wilson said. “We’re supposed to protect individuals from these stressors.”
This has worked in his past cases, he said. Sometimes it’s just enough to delay action.
Wilson reminded people that economic development “is not a bad thing, but sustainable economic development is what you want.”
Meyer was upset about the bureaucracy involved.
“People like that gentleman over there. They don’t want to listen,” he said of Collins, subsequently calling out the incoming state legislator and his connection with the Positive Growth Alliance: “How are you defending our property rights and liberties?”
“You said politicians ignore you. I am here. I think that is a little unfair,” Collins said.
Although he’s “not fully on-board with your issue,” Collins emphasized the he wasn’t as “gung-ho” in favor of the plant as his opponent, incumbent John Atkins.
“I will do my best to monitor what DNREC does,” Collins said, though he said DNREC officials wouldn’t talk about the issue a month prior, due to pending litigation. “I will be more than happy to go to DNREC and explain to them they need to do a lot more communicating.”
After the talk, Kathy Phillips of the Assateague Coastal Trust said she felt “totally reenergized.” Nearby, she said, residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are trying to slow the influx of high-density chicken houses.
“You’re not alone,” she told the Millsboro activists. “I know this is a frustrating battle. And you’re not going to get solutions right away.”
If there is discharge into a nearby waterway, Phillips said, Allen Harim will need an EPA permit, just like a wastewater treatment plant. That’s another chance for public comment.
“I learned more tonight than at any of the other meetings I’ve been to,” said Jerry Lynch of Millsboro.
“DNREC never kept an eye on Vlasic,” Lynch said. “Something’s going to go wrong, and a lot of people will get a letter when we say, ‘I told you so.’”