Valley Proteins, a Dorchester County poultry rendering plant with a history of pollution problems, has agreed to pay about $1 million to settle lawsuits from environmental groups and the state, officials announced Monday.
The consent decree agreement, which still requires a judge’s approval, includes $540,000 in civil penalties that Valley Proteins must pay to the state and $160,000 to fund water restoration and water quality monitoring efforts. The agreement also mandates that Valley Proteins reimburse the state for its past and future inspections at the facility and reimburse the environmental nonprofits for their attorney’s fees and water sampling efforts.
The facility, which processes chicken carcasses for use in animal feed, discharges wastewater into a tributary of the Transquaking River in Linkwood.
Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of the Environment filed suit against Valley Proteins in state court, saying that illegal discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants from the facility went on for nearly 600 days. The facility had been cited for unauthorized discharges of chicken parts and wastewater, as well as air pollution violations due to malfunctioning odor control equipment. At $35,000 per day, the violations could have totaled $20 million.
Monday’s settlement agreement not only reduces those fines, but also includes several new requirements for the plant. For example, it must commission a study to determine whether wastewater it stores in lagoons is leaching contaminants into the groundwater. If leakage is confirmed, Valley Proteins must submit a corrective action plan. The company must commission a similar study to evaluate ways to reduce odors from the facility, a persistent source of frustration for local residents, community groups say.
“This settlement and hefty penalty sends a strong message to Valley Proteins and others that they are not free to pollute Maryland’s waters and air,” Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement Monday.
Valley Proteins was purchased in May for $1.1 billion by Darling Ingredients, a Texas-based company that operates about 250 plants in 17 countries focused on processing waste from the meat industry.
In a statement, Darling Ingredients spokeswoman Jillian Fleming wrote that the company is “committed to continuing to work closely with the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) to ensure the Linkwood facility is in full compliance with all relevant rules and regulations.”
Three environmental and community groups — the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth and ShoreRivers — also had filed a lawsuit against Valley Proteins in federal court over the pollution violations, with the help of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. Per the agreement, the environmental groups will drop their suit after Monday’s consent decree takes effect. The nonprofits, as parties to the consent agreement, will be privy to future developments.
In a statement Monday, ShoreRivers and Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth expressed concern that the consent agreement would not require Valley Proteins to update its wastewater treatment facility. But overall, the agreement is a positive step, said Matt Pluta, director of riverkeeper programs for ShoreRivers.
“I think the outcome was much stronger because we intervened and because we were able to prevent any sweetheart deal between MDE and Valley Proteins,” Pluta said.
Nonprofit groups have at times spurred action from the state against Valley Proteins. After drone footage captured by ShoreRivers showed a white substance flowing from a discharge pipe at the facility last year, the state sent its inspectors, who issued requirements that compelled the facility to shut down for a period of time.
Some $135,000 of the new settlement money from Valley Proteins will go toward a Transquaking River Watershed Fund to be managed by the three environmental groups. Pluta said the groups already have their sights set on using the funds to commission a “temperature and flow” study for the river.
“That’s going to give us an updated view on what the conditions of the Transquaking River are in terms of pollution from nutrient loading, bacteria, all that stuff,” he said. “And then that’ll help us inform our advocacy moving forward on how we want to see Valley Proteins’ permit ratcheted down.”
Monday’s settlement agreement does not preclude the state or environmental groups from taking action on any violations at Valley Proteins after April 8. Violations have continued this summer.
In July, state environmental inspectors visited the facility after a spill of about 1,000 gallons of chicken fat from broken machinery at the plant into a stormwater pond. According to the inspectors’ report, the facility failed to adequately contain the fatty runoff, and also filled in a portion of a wetland area to try to retain the contaminants, in violation of environmental rules.
“We were interested in bringing those violations in the scope of this agreement, and MDE argued that they’re going to prosecute those violations separately,” Pluta said. “And so, we’re calling on MDE to really hold a strong line here and build off of what we’ve done with this agreement.”
In her statement, Fleming said the company is “committed to learning from these incidents and working to prevent future occurrences.”
“While we work hard to prevent spills from occurring, we are prepared to respond quickly and effectively,” she wrote.
The Linkwood plant first made headlines after state lawmakers flagged $13 million in taxpayer funds bound for wastewater treatment upgrades at the facility despite its pollution woes. They argued that the for-profit corporation shouldn’t be rewarded with extra funding to help improve its discharge, but should be required to clean up its act on its own dime. Ultimately, state officials decided to rescind the money.
Regardless, the plant is often cited by environmental advocates as a prime example of Maryland’s shortcomings in environmental enforcement. The plant continues to operate on a water pollution permit that expired in 2006, which has been administratively continued by the state Department of the Environment. It is among numerous so-called “zombie permits” that state lawmakers targeted this year for limits with new legislation.
In a statement Monday, the department said a new permit for Valley Proteins will be issued within 60 days. But a draft version of that permit, released for public comment last year, drew concern from local residents and environmental advocates. Among the frustrations was the fact that the permit opens the door for Valley Proteins to increase the amount of wastewater it discharges per year.