The Sussex County Board of Adjustment recently approved an application requesting development of a chicken processing factory in the old Vlasic pickle plant in Millsboro, and some local residents say they plan to appeal that decision.
“It’s not like we don’t want [the chicken plant] in our community because it’s an inconvenience; there are very important health issues here,” said Cindy Wilton, a Millsboro resident and member of Protecting Our Indian River, a group formed in direct opposition to the proposed chicken plant.
The application, submitted earlier this year by poultry firm Allen Harim Foods for the Pinnacle Foods-owned site in Millsboro, requests a special use exception for a potentially hazardous use. In accordance with the Sussex County Code, hazardous uses – including the slaughtering of poultry and the rendering and storage of dead animals – must be approved by the Board of Adjustment.
The Sept. 23 vote was unanimous, with Jeffrey Hudson, a Millsboro resident, recusing himself.
Board member Norman Rickard said in its application, Allen Harim Foods demonstrated the proposed potentially hazardous use will not adversely affect the factory’s neighboring properties.
“Furthermore, the applicant has demonstrated the public health, safety, morals and general welfare will be properly protected and that necessary safeguards will be provided for the protection of water areas or surrounding properties and persons,” Rickard said.
Douglas Freeman, a spokesperson for Allen Harim, said Pinnacle Foods still owns the pickle plant and a lengthy permitting process lies ahead before the purchase can be finalized. That includes several permits from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, as well as permits from the State Fire Marshal, the Delaware Department of Transportation and the Sussex County Building Inspector.
“[The potentially hazardous use application] is just the first step in this process,” Freeman said. “We are definitely going to be a good environmental steward of the property. That’s one of the reasons all this permitting is necessary. There are laws to protect the environment and we’re going to make sure we comply with those.”
But it’s not just potential hazards from the proposed chicken factory that have the neighbors worried, as contaminants left behind by the pickle plant has Allen Harim and Pinnacle in negotiations with the state regarding environmental remediation. The site, located on Pinnacle Way off Iron Branch Road, has received Brownfield Certification from DNREC, meaning the property is environmentally contaminated and is eligible for state funding for cleanup.
Of particular concern for residents is the presence of hexavalent chromium, known to cause cancer and other illnesses, in the site’s groundwater, as depicted in an environmental assessment conducted by BP Environmental, a consultant hired by Allen Harim. Most surrounding residents utilize individual groundwater wells and some are concerned the chromium has migrated offsite and into their drinking water.
Page 2 of 3 - Members of Protecting Our Indian River have contacted Integrated Resource Management, an environmental consulting company based in Claremont, Calif. The company is owned by Chief Environmental Investigator Robert Bowcock, who works with Erin Brockovich, the environmental and consumer advocate who famously constructed a case in 1993 against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for contamination of drinking water with high levels of hexavalent chromium in Hinkley, Calif.
Wilton said Bowcock visited Millsboro recently and plans to return to conduct testing on residents’ wells.
Prior to the Sept. 23 vote, Bowcock wrote a letter to Lawrence Lank, director of Planning and Zoning for Sussex County, and the Board of Adjustment asking them to allow for “pollution requisite source identification and characterization” before approving Allen Harim’s application for potentially hazardous use.
“Based on the clearly documented groundwater contamination and potential human and/or ecological receptors at the site and in the immediate vicinity, further site assessment and risk evaluations are warranted,” Bowcock wrote in the Sept. 18 letter. “Chemicals of concern include the dumped carcinogenic [Volatile Organic Compounds perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene], the components of dumped fuels, or [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon]…and the extremely toxic chromium compounds most likely associated with cooling tower blow down discharges.”
Wilton said Protecting Our Indian River has also taken a stance against the site’s Brownfield Certification, as they say Pinnacle Foods, which recently purchased Wish Bone salad dressings from Unilever for $580 million, should have to pay to clean up the site. The Brownfield Certification makes Allen Harim eligible for up to $200,000 from the state for environmental remediation at the site. In his letter, Bowcock described Pinnacle as “hardly a company in need of a handout or absolution.”
As of press time, Pinnacle Foods did not respond to requests for comment.
Bowcock said studies for environmental remediation on the site are ongoing. He said he does not know if Pinnacle Foods has offered to help pay for the cleanup.
The expansion of Allen Harim’s poultry operation into Millsboro was announced in April. The company has estimated its investment into the site to be around $100 million and said the new factory will create 700 jobs, most of which will be filled by Delawareans.
The proposed factory has been touted by Gov. Jack Markell, Sen. Gerald Hocker and Rep. John Atkins as a major boost for Sussex County’s economy.
Members of Protecting Our Indian River said they aren’t opposed to job growth, but they feel it should be in an area that is not already heavily industrialized, citing the nearby Mountaire Farms facility, the Indian River Power Plant and more.
“It also shouldn’t be in an area that’s already contaminated,” Wilton said.
Page 3 of 3 - With the help of Maria Payan of the national group Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Protecting Our Indian River plans to appeal the Board of Adjustment’s decision on the grounds that the public was not given enough time to submit comments. The board announced on July 31 that the public had until Aug. 7 to submit comments. Any comments received after Aug. 7 were recorded in the file for the application, but were not provided to the board for review, according to Lank.
“There were a lot of problems as far as public notice,” Payan said. “They were not given enough time.”
Ken Hayes, another member of Protecting Our Indian River, said the group has been labeled as NIMBY’s, which stands for “Not In My Back Yard.”
“They say the only reason we don’t want the chicken plant is because we don’t want it in our backyard,” Hayes said. “But the only reason they’re saying that is because they don’t want it in their backyard. I can guarantee the Board of Adjustment wouldn’t want it in their backyard.”