Environmental groups are concerned by new permit for Eastern Shore facility with history of pollution, consider legal action

Several environmental groups are concerned about a new five-year permit that the state of Maryland issued to Valley Proteins, a Dorchester County industrial facility with a history of environmental violations.

The environmental nonprofits, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and ShoreRivers, as well as local group Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, are worried that the new permit, awarded in the final days of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, opens the door for Valley Proteins to increase the volume of wastewater it discharges into a tributary of the Transquaking River — an impaired waterway flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.


Under the new permit, Valley Proteins, which renders poultry waste for use in pet food, must upgrade its wastewater treatment system in the next three years. After the upgrades are complete, the company can increase its wastewater discharge from 150,000 gallons per day to 575,000 gallons per day. While stricter pollution limits would accompany the increase, environmentalists worry they’re not enough.

“Yes, we need to update the treatment plant,” said Matt Pluta, Choptank riverkeeper for ShoreRivers. “But, where is there any consideration for some sort of probation period, where we need to see 100% compliance for x number of years before even granting this?”


In September, the Valley Proteins plant agreed to pay about $1 million to settle lawsuits from the three environmental groups and the state over its pollution struggles, including nearly 600 days’ worth of violations that could have cost the company millions more. That payment included $540,000 worth of civil penalties, $160,000 for water restoration and water quality monitoring, and the reimbursement of certain attorney fees and inspection efforts.

The Valley Proteins facility has attracted scrutiny from lawmakers and environmental groups since it was revealed in 2021 that it was poised to receive nearly $13 million in taxpayer funds to help upgrade its wastewater treatment system, though it had a history of pollution overages. Such funding is typically awarded to public wastewater treatment plants in need of repairs or improvements. Ultimately, the state decided not to award the money to Valley Proteins.

Until now, the plant had been discharging wastewater under a permit that expired 2006 and had been extended repeatedly by the Maryland Department of the Environment. Often referred to as “zombie permits,” these long-extended pollution limits have attracted attention from lawmakers, who last year passed legislation forcing MDE to cut down on extensions.

But for Valley Proteins, environmental groups say the new permit doesn’t do enough to fix the problems with the outdated permit, particularly when it comes to harmful nutrients. Excess nutrients stimulate the growth of algae, which sucks oxygen from the water as it decays and blocks sunlight from reaching underwater life. Algae blooms are among the greatest challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

“This fight we’ve been having with the Transquaking is sort of a microcosm of the whole problem we’ve been having with the bay,” said Fred Pomeroy, president of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth. “You can’t just throw your hands up and say: ‘It didn’t work. The river’s gone.’ We intend to keep working.”

In a statement, MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said the permit “includes conditions that will reduce pollution and improve water quality,” adding that the agency hopes the permit will “work in tandem” with September’s settlement to better the facility.

Apperson noted that changes were made to the permit following public comment, including the inclusion of additional temperature monitoring and requiring adequate staffing for the upgraded facility. The permit also includes “substantial reductions” in pollution limits compared with the old one, he added.

Yet the nonprofits are considering whether to challenge the new permit through legal action. As written, it takes effect Feb. 1 and expires Jan. 31, 2028.


“That’s the only remedy we have, and it’s probably the only remedy that would make a difference,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The new administration — this permit is kind of locked in for five years — they don’t have a mechanism to review this permit unless it would be sent back to them and remanded by the courts.”

There’s a hope that Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration could be more receptive to environmentalists’ concerns about lax permits than Hogan’s, Myers added.

In May, Valley Proteins was purchased by Texas-based Darling Ingredients for $1.1 billion. In a statement, Darling spokesperson Jillian Fleming said the company takes “all community matters very seriously.”

“We are committed to continuing to work closely with the Maryland Department of Environment to ensure the Linkwood facility is in full compliance with all relevant rules and regulations,” Fleming wrote.

It feels too soon to tell whether the new ownership will make meaningful changes to the plant’s operation, Pluta said. Though it maintained compliance for several months last spring and fall, according to MDE inspection records, there were a few overages in October that prompted an MDE inspection. Plant officials said they paused discharging after they got failing samples back from the lab, and are working to conduct real-time monitoring.

In the meantime, nearby residents remain concerned, Pluta said. In addition to the wastewater it discharges into the river system, thousands of tons of sludge are hauled from the facility and spread on farm fields in Maryland, since the nutrients are helpful for stimulating plant growth. But when they wash into waterways, they have disastrous effects on the ecosystem.


Some of the sludge from Valley Proteins is applied to fields close to the plant, meaning it could wash into the very same watershed already receiving the plant’s nutrient-laden wastewater.

“Between the two, the watershed is just getting a double whammy,” Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy said he would like to see a ban on Valley Proteins sludge being spread within the Transquaking’s watershed. He also wants to see an update to the “total maximum daily load” or TMDL for the river, which sets limits on the amounts of nutrients it receives, as it was created in 2000 using computer modeling from that era.