Battle over redevelopment of former Vlasic plant continues

Date Published: 
December 27, 2013

Residents of the area surrounding the former Pinnacle Foods site near Millsboro, along with various Delaware officials, are waiting to hear the outcome of last week’s public hearing regarding the proposed remediation plan for the Brownfields site.

Located at 29984 Pinnacle Way, just outside of Millsboro, the 107.3-acre former pickling factory could be converted into a chicken processing plant. Korean company Allen Harim has entered into a Brownfields development agreement, promising to clean up hazardous contaminants left from Vlasic’s nearly 40 years of operation there before spending an estimated $100 million to redevelop the site for its processing plant.

According to Timothy Ratsep, environmental program administrator for DNREC’s site Investigation & Restoration Program, the Brownfields Program is a way to bring developers into an area where there are known issues.

“This site is currently in the department’s Brownfield Program where we incentivize proposed developers to investigate and clean up sites to be put back into productive use. Then those developers are not liable for the past contamination,” Ratsep said. “Allen Harim is coming in as a prospective developer in this case.”

According to Ratsep, Robert Haynes — who presided over last week’s hearing — will review the information presented and write a hearing officer’s report with his recommendation to DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara.

“It basically says, ‘The proposed plan should be accepted as is,’ ‘The proposed plan should be amended, and here are the points of amendment,’ or ‘The proposed plan should not be accepted,’” Ratsep explained of what a recommendation might contain. “That goes to the Secretary, and he’ll issue an order — either approving or disagreeing with the hearing officer’s conclusions — telling my section, the Site Investigation and Restoration Section, how to proceed with the proposed plan.”

Many state agencies have made statements in favor of Allen Harim taking over the Vlasic site, singling out its potential economic benefits to the state.

“The Delaware Department of Agriculture strongly supports Allen Harim Foods’ efforts to bring 700 new jobs to Delaware and invest $100 million to put the vacant Vlasic plant near Millsboro back into operation as a poultry plant,” said Dan Shortridge, chief of community relations for the Delaware Department of Agriculture.

“This will have a tremendous economic benefit to Delaware workers and businesses, and will also help expand the Delaware poultry industry — the mainstay of our agricultural economy and the source of thousands of jobs in our state. The effort has support from municipal leaders, state legislators, agricultural leaders, county officials and the local business community, all of whom recognize the significant opportunity this presents for Millsboro, Sussex County and Delaware.”

“In deciding to locate here, Harim’s leaders have shown confidence in our business climate and that they value the relationship they have developed with our state,” added Gov. Jack Markell, who was instrumental in bringing Harim to Delaware.

“The company’s investment represents 700 jobs in Millsboro, as well as a $100 million investment in a facility that will make an existing industrial site cleaner, with state-of-the-art odor and wastewater treatment systems. They have committed to $10 million, specifically, to improve the wastewater system. This is a tremendous economic opportunity for our state, and we should take it.”

The Delaware Association of Realtors and the Sussex County Association of Realtors (SCAOR) have also vocalized their support of the project.

“This is a highly important to not only our members — the 1,500 members in the association — but we feel this is a common-sense story as it relates to our local economy, our state’s economy, and we need to be proactive in our vocal support of this,” said Rob Arlett, chairman of the Public Policy Committee for SCAOR, as well as a licensed Realtor and owner of Beach Bound Realty.

“It’s highly impactful on many fronts. We live in this community, we’re all neighbors in this community, and we need to have a single voice in support of this.”

But there are those who oppose the project.

Melanie Breech, a single parent who lives in Possum Point, near the site, said she has many concerns related to the site, including a decrease in property values.

“I don’t think it should be allowed,” she said. “The pollution, the noises, the traffic — not to mention what that will do to our home values. Even if I put it on the market now, I’ll never get what I paid for it. I’m very much opposed to this, and I don’t think it should be allowed.”

“I feel just the opposite,” said Arlett of concerns related to a potential decrease in property values if the site is redeveloped. “That area has been very depressed. That corridor is a very depressed area, and property values have plummeted in that area specifically. I feel, with a productive plant with employees and all of the offshoot opportunities that will exist, demand will be increased for housing, so that demand will increase the existing property values. I’m very confident of that.”

Arlett added that SCAOR is not supporting the redevelopment for the economic benefits for area Realtors, but for the benefit of the state as a whole.

“We’re not so naive to realize that not everybody is going to be going out and buying homes. This is not about home ownership. We’re not taking a stance, thinking that there are going to be 700 families that will be our clientele. It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about 700 private jobs that are being generated by a private company.

“You have private capital being invested into the local economy — $100 million is what we’re hearing. It’s about 700 lives being changed in a positive way. That’s what this is about.

“Someone needs to be vocal in support of this,” he said. “We need this in our town, our county, and in our state. We need a private enterprise coming in, investing $100 million into the community.”

Engineer Kathy Martin submitted written comments regarding the proposed remediation plan for the Pinnacle site, noting her concern about the public’s access — or lack thereof — to documents.

“The public has had access to the addendum for only four days prior to the end of public comment period and the public hearing,” she wrote. “Two of those days were the weekend.”

NPDES permit renewal issues raised

Amidst the background of public controversy and a pending recommendation, there are now questions about whether state officials can even approve the proposed poultry plant. According to the Protecting Our Indian River citizens group, which opposes the Harim project, DNREC cannot modify Vlasic’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the proposed poultry plant, as that permit has expired.

As authorized by the Clean Water Act, the NPDES permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States.

“The NPDES permit for the former Vlasic Pickle facility expired on Oct. 31, 2013. DNREC has administratively extended the permit and informed EPA that it intends to transfer ownership of the site to Allen Harim Food,” said David McGuigan of the Office of NPDES Permits and Enforcement.

“The EPA has expressed to DNREC that this is not in accordance with federal requirements, as it is not permissible to modify an expired permit,” McGuigan noted. “In EPA’s Federal Register notice for the 1984 amendment to the NPDES permit regulations, the agency stated that ‘Permits which have “expired” cannot be modified.’

“It is DNREC’s intent to fully reevaluate the NPDES permit limits and requirements for any proposed discharge from the new poultry processing plant,” he continued. “Poultry processing would be subject to the Meat & Poultry Products Point Source Category at 40 CFR § 432, and the permit development process will involve an evaluation of the necessary technology-based and water quality-based permit effluent limits for that type of operation.

“EPA will continue to discuss future permitting actions for this facility with DNREC to ensure those actions are in accordance with federal requirements,” he said.

“We are extremely grateful to the EPA for addressing our concerns.” said Cindy Wilton, a member of the citizens’ group.

“DNREC must be held accountable. The people of Delaware expect them to do their job. The Indian River must be protected. We have been telling DNREC this for months,” stated Maria Payan of Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, a non-profit organization that is helping Protecting Our Indian River.

Environmental impact still a point of concern

Through the Brownfields investigation of the Pinnacle site, sediment sampling found cyanide, mercury and toluene levels there to be above DNREC’s screening values. Despite that, officials said that remedial action was not warranted.

“More detailed evaluation showed no remedial actions for human health or aquatic life is required,” said DNREC environmental scientist Morgan Price, at the hearing. “An exceedance of DNREC screening values doesn’t mean that there is a human health risk above regulatory standards,” Price emphasized. “An exceedance of DNREC screening values means that further evaluation for that contaminant is needed. DNREC’s screening values are 10 times lower than the regulatory standards and background values for some metals.”

Through 21 groundwater samples, DNREC found that there were exceedances of the Delaware Drinking Water Standard. PCE and TCE were above the standard of one part per billion (ppb) at one monitoring well, located centrally within the site.

Price said that DNREC knows the contamination is localized because the levels of those contaminants are below standards at surrounding sampling sites.

In deep soil sampling, one location had iron exceeding DNREC’s screening values, but it was deemed to not present a risk and to not require remedial action. Chloroform was also found to exceed standards of soil vapor samples; however, officials said that, through further study, it was determined no action would be necessary on that issue.

The Brownfields investigation also showed an exceedance of aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium and cobalt but did not exceed the Delaware Drinking Water Standard.

However, lead exceeded the standard of 15 ppb, by 2.3 ppb.

Nitrates were detected in several monitoring and drinking-water wells onsite, at levels above the Delaware Drinking Water Standard of 10 ppb, at two monitoring wells and one public well.

DNREC officials said that groundwater was the only media of environmental concern, and that the agency proposes a long-term water-monitoring program. If further contamination or migration is detected, other remedial action could be required.

Breech, who attended the hearing, said she was not opposed to a chicken processing plant, just opposed to having one located at the Pinnacle site.

“I just don’t think it’s the right neighborhood for it,” she said. “How about a nice park?”

In her comments, Martin wrote that there were “several gaping omissions” in the abbreviated site history provided by the final Brownfields investigation report — one being the mismanagement of sludge at the plant.

“The agency allowed Vlasic to over-apply nitrogen to the 50 acres (and at some points in time, only 35 acres), at least six times the amount of nitrogen that could be used by the corn crop [at Baxter Farms].”

Arlett said there was discussion at the hearing regarding DNREC not monitoring the former tenant.

“We need to have a good healthy dialogue in the community and focus on the positives. Keep the State accountable, in reference to the environmental concerns, but we should not not allow Harim in for that reason,” Arlett said. “There’s obviously going to be a continued dialogue in reference to the harmful environmental impact.

“My thought process is, right now there’s nobody there. There is nobody there taking care of it. It would fall on the taxpayers, with the State coming in and cleaning it up. If you have a company coming in with private money to clean it up, using their own monies … they’re going to be taking water in from the Indian River and filtering it, using it and then filtering it again before it goes back out into the Indian River.

“If the water going back out into the water is cleaner than what they originally took in, and they’re paying for it, why would we not be in support of that?” he continued. “I just think if we, as a community, do not take advantage of this, shame on us.”

In her letter to DNREC, Martin added that, although there were 51 soil borings listed in the final report, along with a dozen monitoring wells tested for contaminants, there was a “stunning lack data for subsurface soils or groundwater at the waste treatment and outdoor pickle vat storage areas.” Martin also said that those were the two areas were used to contain the majority of wastewater and brine from the plant’s operation.

Genell Pridgen of Rainbow Meadow Farms in Snow Hill, N.C., a consultant, also submitted a letter stating that the environmental pollution and health concerns that already exist in the area are too great. She added that the proposed plan is “simply inadequate.”

“There should be no degree of uncertainty acceptable where the health of citizens is concerned,” she wrote.

Pridgen added she believes Pinnacle Foods should be involved in cleaning up the contaminants from its plant.

“What the community needs is for Pinnacle Foods to be held accountable for the damage they left behind, nor for the taxpayers to have to clean up their mess,” she said. “What the community needs is for DNREC to ensure that cleanup is complete before any permit is issued to a new business to operate at this site... What the community needs is for DNREC to do their job, which is to protect the environment. What the community intends to do is to hold them accountable!”

Arlett said that protecting the environment and supporting economic development don’t have to be separate issues.

“We all want a good healthy environment. We want good, healthy water — we all want the same thing. I don’t think it’s one or the other,” he said. “We can accomplish both. We want healthy water. We want a good, healthy environment that we all live in, that we work in and have clientele in.

“I know nothing is ever perfect. I know there are traffic concerns. I know there are concerns that not all 700 jobs will be for Delawareans. I understand that. But even if it was 500 jobs that are local, it’s 500 more than what we have today.

“I think we need to focus on the positives and build on that,” he asserted. “Here we have somebody who is willing to be responsible and take that upon themselves. We want that and are in support of that.”

State officials said they are aware of the concerns of residents and will provide an open forum throughout the process.

“We understand that some residents continue to have questions about the project and its potential impacts. Through the permitting processes, which will have multiple opportunities for public input, those questions will be answered,” said Shortridge. “We believe that the project will ultimately bring countless benefits to the local community and the state.

“It should be noted that Allen Harim Foods has been committed to addressing questions and concerns from the start,” he said. “Before the permit process even began, Allen Harim leaders and [Agriculture] Secretary [Ed] Kee met with plant neighbors at two community meetings to help them learn more about the project.”

Ratsep added that, even though DNREC has its Brownfields program, it doesn’t mean that Pinnacle Foods couldn’t be held responsible for the environmental violations.

“The department never waives liability for past violators, so Vlasic is always liable for contamination that they caused — that does not change. What the department does is we basically use State funds to help with the redevelopment of the site,” he said.

“The State could pursue that,” he said of holding Vlasic responsible for the contamination, “but at this time, with the Brownfields program, we don’t actively go after those contributors,” he explained. “But there’s nothing in the state statute that would limit us from doing that in the future.”

Millsboro Mayor Robert Bryan said that, although the site is not located within the town limits, he is in favor of the redevelopment and believes the State will do what is necessary.

“They’re going to do whatever has to be done. They can’t sweep it under the rug. If there are contaminated soils it’s going to have to be taken care of,” he said, adding, that the 700 jobs would be a boost to the local economy.

Ratsep added that O’Mara’s order can be appealed within 20 days of the official order to the Environmental Appeals Board, which consists of seven Delaware residents, appointed by the governor, with each county having at least two representative members.

Payan said she believes Protecting Our Indian River will appeal the issue if it does not include an order for further testing on the Pinnacle site and surrounding areas.

To view DNREC’s proposed plan of remedial action, visit http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/dwhs/SIRB/Lists/SIRB%20Plans%20%20Proposed..., or go to http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/dwhs/SIRB/Pages/SIRBPlans.aspx, select Dagsboro from the City drop-down menu and select DE-1555, 29984 Pinnacle Way Site. To view Austin’s presentations, visit www.inlandbaysfoundation.org.