Valley Proteins, Dorchester County’s troubled chicken rendering plant, has suspended operations after environmental groups and state inspectors raised pollution concerns, the Maryland Department of the Environment said Wednesday.
The plant attracted scrutiny earlier this year after lawmakers discovered it was to receive a $13 million subsidy from the state for a wastewater system upgrade, even after previous pollution incidents. The state later rescinded the funds, and Valley Proteins said it would not complete the costly upgrade, though other upgrades were planned.
The plant is also one of numerous facilities in the state operating under what environmental groups call a “zombie permit,” an outdated set of pollution control requirements. The plant’s existing discharge permit expired in 2006. Valley Proteins took over the facility in 2013.
In September, Maryland environmental officials announced they planned to levy a “significant financial penalty” against the plant, and released a new draft permit for the facility, requiring it to decrease pollution. The public comment period for the permit is open until Jan. 14, wrote Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson in an email.
But on Dec. 10, members of environmental nonprofit group ShoreRivers observed white and brown discharge flowing through a stream near the plant during an aerial survey, said Matt Pluta, director of riverkeeper programs at the nonprofit.
“It’s a complete disaster out there,” Pluta said.
Michael Smith, vice chair and co-owner of Valley Proteins, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.
ShoreRivers sent the drone footage, which showed the white substance flowing from one of the factory’s discharge pipes, to the Department of the Environment. Inspectors then visited the plant, and noticed an illegal discharge to a holding pond, according to a letter sent to the facility by Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles.
The inspectors’ observations left the department with “no option but to proceed with the filing of a civil complaint,” Grumbles wrote. That complaint is still pending, Apperson said.
“The facility’s recent compliance record indicates a pattern of improper operations and poor decision-making regarding water pollution and air emissions issues,” Grumbles wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 16. “We request that you take immediate actions to address the violations described in the various inspection reports that have been provided.”
One inspection report from earlier this week called for Valley Proteins to stop generating wastewater until it could come into compliance with its permitted limits, to continue efforts to haul away excess wastewater and to commission an engineer within 10 days to evaluate the plant’s wastewater system, among other requirements.
Lawyers for the facility, located in Linkwood, told the state that Valley Proteins suspended operations in response to the inspection reports, Apperson wrote.
“Valley Proteins is putting together a plan with specific steps to return to operation in compliance with its permit,” Apperson wrote. “This plan will have to demonstrate to MDE that future operations will comply with discharge limits and the terms of the permit.”
In the meantime, nonprofit group Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth is sampling the water downstream from the plant, Pluta said, and has found elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, both harmful pollutants that can stimulate the growth of oxygen-depleting algae, harming marine life.
The plant has a history of similar violations, and was fined $5,000 in 2019, according to online records.
Pluta said it worries him that it took a drone survey by the nonprofit to bring the most recent pollution from Valley Proteins to light. And he feels the incident is evidence that Valley Proteins may not be able to meet the limits set out in a new permit. The draft permit also offers the plant a chance to increase its discharge into the Transquaking River, which Pluta called “unacceptable.”
“We want to see the facility safely operating within the guidelines of their permit. If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be operating at all,” Pluta said. “These most recent compliance issues really bring to light whether or not Valley can operate within these limits.”
In a statement, Grumbles said: “We are much more focused on enforcement and correcting any ongoing violations before taking any actions on a draft permit.”