For years, neighbors and environmental groups have worried about pollution from Valley Proteins, a Dorchester County plant that boils down chicken feathers, bones and fats to be used in animal feed and biofuels.
They watched in frustration as the plant continually failed to report to state regulators about the contents of its wastewater. And when Valley Proteins did report on the nitrates, ammonia and nitrogen it was discharging, the amounts often exceeded the lawful limits.
Since 2006, when the company’s water pollution permit expired, environmentalists and community members have been waiting in vain for the state to issue a new one with stricter requirements.
And last month, they learned that the company was poised to receive $13 million in taxpayer money — more than 80% of the cost of a project to upgrade its wastewater system. To them, it looked like the company was being rewarded for its pollution woes.
This week, they decided they’d had enough — and filed a notice of their intent to sue Valley Proteins.
Now, the company has 60 days to settle the concerns from environmental groups, or they will sue. That group includes Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth and ShoreRivers, both represented by the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They’re asking the court to require the company to address current problems, and possibly pay a fine of more than $500 million for noncompliance with environmental laws.
“I can tell you: My first day on the job six years ago, this permit was on my radar,” said Matt Pluta, director of Riverkeeper Programs for ShoreRivers.
According to the legal filing, Valley Proteins stores its waste in several ponds on-site, all close by the Transquaking River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary that runs through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. In documents obtained by environmental groups, state regulators said nutrients from these ponds could be seeping into the groundwater, or spilling over into the river.
High levels of nitrates and other nutrients in bodies of water can lead to harmful algae blooms, which suck up oxygen for aquatic creatures, and can cause events like fish kills.
“On the Transquaking River you have Higgins Millpond, which is just downstream from this discharge, and it’s almost an annual occurrence where they have harmful algal blooms in that pond,” Pluta said. “As recently as last year, they had a massive fish kill.”
There are also wells in the vicinity of Valley Proteins, which may draw from groundwater for drinking water, the legal documents from the environmental groups stated. High levels of nitrates can have health consequences for infants and young children.
Over the past five years, Valley Proteins has been fined once for environmental harm — a $5,000 charge in April 2019.
In the third quarter of 2020, for instance, Valley Proteins reported discharging more than 25 times the allowable amount of nitrogen and ammonia, according to the EPA database.
Company owner Michael Smith said an internal lab error caused incorrect pollution level calculations for those months. But the company also exceeded limits in the second and fourth quarters of 2020, albeit by much smaller amounts.
He said the company’s waste ponds are lined with clay to stop seepage into groundwater, and that the company is working with the state to avoid polluting the Transquaking.
“It might be problems that are on and off,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s a continual problem.”
In 2017 and 2019, MDE inspectors reported overflows from storage tanks at Valley Proteins, including a 2,000-gallon spill from November 2019 caused by anequipment failure.
The environmental groups alleged more than 9,000 violations — typically exceeding a nutrient level — over the course of five years. Each violation could be subject to a civil penalty up to $56,460, totaling more than $515 million.
Smith said his company was still reviewing the filing.
“We certainly would be willing to sit down and talk with them and go through what we have done and what we want to do and try to get them to understand the position that we’ve been in for over six years trying to get this resolved,” Smith said. His company took over the plant in 2013.
Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Valley Proteins stood out among the larger group of what he calls “zombie permits,” outdated permits covering facilities that are still operating.
“This one’s been quarter after quarter after quarter of reporting violations, which is difficult because then we don’t know what they’re discharging. And then when they do report, it’s really bad,” Myers said.
Eastern Shore environmental activists have had their eye on the Valley Proteins facility long before it came up in the halls of General Assembly.
Fred Pomeroy, of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, said his group has met with MDE about the plant on several occasions, hoping to secure a new permit. But he said he hasn’t been satisfied by the department’s response.
“We decided to go through the legal channels because we just feel like we just can’t let this go on any longer,” Pomeroy said.
The state Department of the Environment has said that it suggested new permit requirements for the facility, but community members sought greater pollution reductions, and the agency went back to the drawing board.
Of late, the department has been working with Valley Proteins to test wastewater treatment methods that could reduce pollution, a spokesman said. Last year, the company applied to the taxpayer-funded Bay Restoration Fund to upgrade its treatment system. The fund is mainly used for public sewage treatment plants, but Valley Proteins’ project was awarded $12.787 million.
The department ranked Valley Proteins’ project fifth out of 99 applications, “primarily due to the high number of annual nitrogen reductions and the cost efficiency of those reductions,” according to spokesman Jay Apperson. The technology Valley Proteins plans to install would reduce nitrogen output by an estimated 83% and phosphorous by 70%, Apperson said.
Smith said MDE approached the company with the idea of applying for the Bay Restoration funds.
“This whole thing about this new system only came up within the last year and a half. We thought we’re going to see a permit, and then they decided not to give us the draft permit because they wanted us to look into this,” Smith said. “They were trying to incentivize us to be willing to do it, and we said yes, we would be willing to do it with help from state funds, but it’s a very expensive system.”
Lawmakers frustrated that a profitable private company was getting state dollars to reduce its pollution added a budget requirement that no more than $7,675,000 be given to Valley Proteins — about half the project cost.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said his department worked with members of the General Assembly to include the measure as “a first-ever cost sharing requirement” for the Bay Restoration Fund. Grumbles said in a statement the agency hasn’t moved forward with Valley Proteins’ Bay Restoration Fund award as it reviews the new cost-sharing requirements.