Valley Proteins, operator of an Eastern Shore plant that processes poultry carcasses for animal feed and is facing heavy scrutiny for what it releases into waterways, is the target of two new lawsuits seeking to stop it from polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland environmental regulators filed a lawsuit in Dorchester County Circuit Court that seeks fines of up to $35,000 for each day of water pollution permit violations at the company’s Dorchester County plant. State environmental regulators say illegal discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants went on for nearly 600 days, suggesting authorities could seek a maximum penalty of more than $20 million.
And environmental groups, who said they are concerned Maryland did not act sooner to address the plant’s pollution, filed an action of their own in U.S. District Court seeking accountability. Eastern Shore environmental group ShoreRivers, community group Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are asking for a court order against Valley Proteins and unspecified damages.
Matt Pluta, director of riverkeeper programs at ShoreRivers, called the state’s lawsuit “long overdue” and said the environmental groups decided a federal lawsuit was needed to ensure Valley Proteins is held accountable.
Despite recent actions by the state to inspect the plant and enforce environmental violations, the plant’s pollution “still doesn’t seem to be completely under control,” Pluta said.
The facility boils down chicken bones, feathers and fats for use in animal feed and other products.
A spokesman for Virginia-based Valley Proteins could not be reached for comment, nor could a spokeswoman for Darling Ingredients, a Texas-based company that announced plans to acquire Valley Proteins for $1.1 billion in late December.
The Valley Proteins plant has been the focus of much attention in environmental policy circles around the state for the past year because its critics say it’s a stark example of poor regulatory oversight. The permit that sets limits on what the facility can discharge into waterways expired in 2006, and the state has extended it repeatedly, allowing the plant to continue operating while violating that old permit and without receiving a new permit with more stringent pollution standards.
Environmental advocates say the pattern suggests more pollution is likely going undetected and unregulated elsewhere around the state.
Maryland’s lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Brian Frosh on behalf of the Maryland Department of the Environment, comes nearly a year after some state lawmakers and environmental groups criticized Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration for offering $13 million to Valley Proteins for environmental improvements at the plant from a taxpayer-funded Chesapeake Bay restoration program. They argued regulators should have been cracking down on the plant instead of subsidizing a for-profit business.
The administration reversed course and rescinded the grant in September. Officials said that the plant suspended operations in December under an interim consent decree with the state that bars it from operating in violation of its permits.
Now, Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state is taking legal action based on the company’s own discharge monitoring reports from April 2019 through October 2021 and inspections by state regulators from January 2019 through last month. State officials say their data also shows issues with air pollution coming from the plant.
“When significant violations are observed, MDE has an obligation to take equitable and timely enforcement action to ensure environmental accountability and to deter future violations,” he said in a statement.
Pluta said environmental groups that continue to monitor the plant have observed that it quickly resumed operations after the state stepped in in December, and that it is hauling away wastewater to a nearby treatment plant.