Officials have confirmed that an expired wastewater discharge permit held by Pinnacle Foods for the former Vlasic pickling plant in Millsboro cannot be transferred to soon-to-be owner Allen Harim Foods, which plans to convert the site to a poultry processing facility.

Officials have confirmed that an expired wastewater discharge permit held by Pinnacle Foods for the former Vlasic pickling plant in Millsboro cannot be transferred to soon-to-be owner Allen Harim Foods, which plans to convert the site to a poultry processing facility.

In early October, Pinnacle submitted an application to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to renew its National Pollution Elimination Discharge System permit, which “limits the discharge of potential pollutants to protect the waters that receive them,” according to DNREC’s website.

The permit, which expired Oct. 31, was administratively extended by DNREC while the application for renewal was reviewed.

Because the plant has been closed for more than a year, opponents of the facility’s redevelopment for poultry processing said the permit should not be renewed.

“We all know Vlasic has no intention of operating at the site and discharging any wastewater under this permit,” said Maria Payan, a representative of the national group Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, which is working on behalf of the local group Protecting Our Indian River, comprised mainly of residents who live close to the plant. “Knowing this, why would DNREC even accept a request for renewal of the permit? Allen Harim will open an entirely new operation and will need a different permit.”

Michael Globetti, a spokesman for DNREC, said the property is still owned by Pinnacle which continues, under an administratively extended permit, to operate its wastewater plant to treat storm water, blow-down water from boilers and sanitary waste, all of which are products of plant maintenance.

“Allen Harim Foods would need a new permit when and if that company takes ownership of the site and begins operating the facility for poultry processing,” Globetti said. “This is based on [the Environmental Protection Agency’s] clarification for DNREC that so long as the current owner, Pinnacle Foods, operates under an administratively extended permit, it has been done legally.”

The EPA weighed in after Protecting Our Indian voiced concerns that DNREC was considering modifying and transferring Pinnacle’s pickling permit so that Allen Harim could use it for poultry processing.

These concerns stem from a July 25 letter to Sussex County officials from DNREC Dep. Sec. David Small, who said when facilities change ownership, the new owners typically request the transfer of any operating permits under the former owner. Depending on the nature of operations under the new owners, Small wrote, permits may need to be modified to reflect operational changes.

“Modifications to permits generally require public notice and an opportunity for a public hearing,” Small said. “At this point, Allen Harim has not yet formally requested the transfer of any permits currently held by Pinnacle Foods for the Millsboro facility. However, we anticipate this request would come shortly after the acquisition of the facility.”

Also in the letter, Small specifically references wastewater discharge and Pinnacle’s NPDES permit.

“At this time, [DNREC] does not have a permit application or plans for the handling of the wastewater from Allen Harim but Pinnacle does still have an NPDES permit allowing wastewater discharge which can be transferred to the new company,” he wrote. “Should the project proceed and changes are required to manage wastewater, we will work with Allen Harim to ensure the wastewater systems meet all regulatory requirements and are appropriately permitted.”

In a Dec. 20 email to Protecting Our Indian River, David McGuigan, spokesman for the EPA’s Office of NPDES Permits and Enforcement, said the agency has expressed to DNREC that this is not in accordance with federal requirements as it is not permissible to modify an expired permit.

“It is DNREC’s intent to fully reevaluate the NPDES permit limits and requirements for any proposed discharge from the new poultry processing plant,” he said.

McGuigan said the permit development process for Allen Harim will involve an evaluation of the necessary technology-based and water quality-based effluent limits for that type of operation.

“[The] EPA will continue to discuss future pending actions for this facility with DNREC to ensure those actions are in accordance with federal requirements,” McGuigan said.

Despite DNREC’s assurance that Allen Harim will have to get its own permit, Cindy Wilton, a founding member of Protecting Our Indian River, said Pinnacle’s permit should not be renewed.

“The plant is closed,” Wilton said. “There should be no [wastewater] dumping there, period.”

Cleanup plan approved

Protecting Our Indian River’s stance against redevelopment of the plant was dealt a blow Dec. 24 when DNREC Sec. Collin O’Mara issued an order approving the state’s remediation plan to address environmental contaminants left onsite by Vlasic. The plan, which opponents have claimed is inadequate, focuses on long-term groundwater monitoring with possible further action if contaminants migrate or show an increasing trend.

In the order, O’Mara says DNREC understands the concerns of nearby residential property owners not wanting the closed industrial plant to be used for another industrial operation, but the future use of the site is not within DNREC’s authority to determine.

“The opposition to redevelopment as a poultry processing plant is a matter of land use control and Sussex County government has the exclusive authority to determine if poultry production is a land use consistent with its zoning. The record indicates that the land is zoned heavy industrial,” O’Mara wrote. “[DNREC’s] role is to ensure that the land is environmentally safe from contaminants for its intended use, and the [remediation plan] indicates that it will be.”

Anyone who disagrees with the secretary’s decision has 20 days from the date the order was issued to file an appeal. Wilton said Protecting Our Indian River will “most definitely” be taking action.