Polluting Eastern Shore factory will no longer receive multimillion-dollar grant that stirred controversy among lawmakers

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration no longer plans to spend millions of taxpayer dollars for a wastewater treatment upgrade at an Eastern Shore chicken rendering plant with pollution woes, state Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said Thursday.

Instead, the state has drafted new wastewater requirements for the Valley Proteins factory in Dorchester County’s Linkwood, and is planning to levy a “substantial” financial penalty over pollution concerns, Grumbles said.


“We understood the level of problems with compliance and wanted to focus most on enforcement and finalizing a stronger permit. So, we have not provided funding and we have no intention to provide funding for the facility at this point,” Grumbles said in an interview.

As a result, Valley Proteins no longer plans to install enhanced nutrient reduction technology at the plant — a project with a $15 million price tag, said Michael Smith, vice chair and co-owner of the company. Company officials will, however, fund other, smaller improvements in an effort to meet the state’s new requirements once they’re finalized, Smith said.


“The state of Maryland fell back on the deal. And the whole deal was we would agree to do it if they agreed to help fund it,” he said. “We just don’t have that kind of money.”

Discussions about awarding $13 million to the facility — 83% of the project’s cost — came under fire during this year’s General Assembly session. Some lawmakers worried that the funds, drawn from proceeds of the state’s “flush fee” paid by residents, would encourage bad behavior. They voted to limit the state’s contribution to the project to about $7.6 million.

The plant has a history of releasing more nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants than permitted into the adjacent Transquaking River, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s online database. Those pollutants are capable of stimulating harmful algae blooms that can suffocate marine life. Such a bloom was discovered in the Higgins Millpond near the plant in July, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Now, the plant likely will have to reduce its pollution loads without state support.

The newly drafted permit would require the factory, which boils down chicken bones, feathers and fats for use in animal feed, to reduce its nitrogen output by 43%, and its phosphorous output by 79%, MDE said in a news release.

The requirements for nitrogen stop short of the targets the plant could hit with the enhanced nutrient reduction technology that was to have been funded by the state.

The permit also requires the facility to more closely monitor pollution levels in nearby groundwater, and more carefully manage its sludge waste product. A public comment period about the requirements will last through Dec. 15, and a hearing will be held Oct. 20.


Details about a financial penalty the plant might incur are still to come, Grumbles said. The plant previously was fined $5,000 in 2019 for water pollution violations.

“It’s a priority, and we want to wrap this up soon, because it’s important for it to be moving forward with the draft permit. The two can go together very well,” Grumbles said.

Smith declined to comment on the possible penalty.

Thursday, environmental groups cheered the news that new pollution reduction requirements were on the way — and that taxpayer dollars wouldn’t be funding them. But they urged that the permit should be accompanied by strong enforcement from the state.

Earlier this year, advocacy groups ShoreRivers, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and local group Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth filed a notice of intent to sue Valley Proteins over pollution violations, with the help of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. Now, they’re in negotiations to settle the matter without a suit, said AJ Metcalf, a spokesman for the bay foundation.


In the interim, the new requirements from Maryland, and the promise of penalties, is a step in the right direction, said Matt Pluta, director of riverkeeper programs at ShoreRivers.

“I appreciate the state and their willingness to move this permit forward,” Pluta said. “But we can’t ignore the non-compliance that the facility has had for so many years either.”

The facility is operating under a wastewater permit that expired in 2006. Valley Proteins took over the plant in 2013. Pluta dubbed it one of the oldest “zombie permits” in the state.

Smith said his company is relieved to have the draft permit, too. Now, officials can better plan for the future, he said.

“It’s been a waiting game that’s been very frustrating,” he said. “Hard to run a business when you’re waiting on years of data to be looked at and trying to come up with a permit. I’ve never dealt with any state like this before that’s taken this long to get a permit.”

Once the company knows what the required pollution levels will be, officials can sign off on pricey upgrades like new aeration tanks for water treatment, he said.


“There’s several things, several millions of dollars, that we’ve been waiting on making decisions to pull the trigger on,” Smith said.

In the meantime, the plant has installed other upgrades, like a system to strip out oils, greases and solids before the water is treated, Smith said. The company also brought in corporate trainers to work with plant personnel.

“We do our best to stay 100% compliant,” he said. “But these systems rely on people. And people make mistakes.”