Milk producers concede 'oversight,' seek state permit


Hoping to become a better neighbor, officials at the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Association have applied for an environmental permit they failed to obtain two years ago and are working to reduce emission of pollutants and odors from their North Laurel milk plant.

The plant's officials said the failure to obtain a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) permit to operate their 65-foot-tall milk dryer -- a machine used to make nonfat dry milk -- was simply "an oversight." They said they purchased the dryer in January 1993 to make production more efficient and reduce pollution at the plant -- located off Leishear Road on the south side of Gorman Road.

"Our relationship with our neighbors has been very important to us," said George Walgrove, secretary and general manager of the milk producers association. "The fact that we didn't get the permit was our fault. Our assumption was that it was taken care of. It was an oversight."

Wednesday night, Mr. Walgrove and other officials from the plant met with the MDE inspectors and a small group of North Laurel residents at a public hearing at Hammond Elementary School. They discussed concerns about the plant and whether the environmental permit should be granted.

MDE inspectors said the dryer's emissions were far below state standards and posed a minimal threat to the environment. But residents voiced concern about waste being dumped from the plant into Hammond Branch, a stream that flows into Little Patuxent River, and about the smell of other plant waste that is sprayed on the grassy fields of its 236-acre site.

"When they spray it and the wind blows my way, I can't have my windows open," said Karina Zimmerman, president of the Hunter's Creek Homeowners Association. "It's a nuisance. It smells really bad."

The 37-year-old milk plant -- a manufacturing center that is part of a cooperative between 1,220 Maryland and Virginia milk farmers -- produces butter, condensed skim milk and nonfat dry milk. As many as 75 trucks -- each holding up to 5,500 gallons of milk -- deliver to the plant Monday through Friday. The number rises to as many as 100 trucks a day on weekends. The plant operates every day.

MDE inspectors said that apart from the lack of a permit for the milk dryer, they have no record of violations at the plant. The dryer emits sulfur oxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. At most times, emission of those pollutants is about half the Maryland standard or less, the state inspectors said.

"This facility is a small source of emissions," said Quinton Banks, a spokesman for MDE, adding that the permit is likely to be approved. "Now they're trying to get the needed permit. They're trying to do what's right."

Plant manager William King said the new dryer emits pollutants at lower levels than the system it replaced, which was installed in 1971 and used two dryers to produce the same amount of dry milk. He said the milk producers association has been looking for ways to cut emissions and to reduce odors from the plant.

"We're trying to make sure we're in compliance," Mr. King said. "We want to be a good neighbor."

In addition to the chemical emissions, the plant's waste treatment center had been producing a liquid substance that was sprayed over the milk factory's land. The odor from that waste often wafted into homeowners' yards. But now, Mr. King said, the plant produces a more solid substance that will be given to farmers to haul away for fertilizer.

"It sounds like they're moving in the right direction," said Donna Thewes, a member of the North Laurel Civic Association. "We'll see what happens."

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