Milton-area residents are pushing back on a plan that will stop poultry giant Allen Harim’s Harbeson chicken plant from discharging treated wastewater into a Sussex County creek.
The plan calls for Allen Harim to pipe its treated wastewater eight miles to a facility northwest of Milton owned by water resources company Artesian Resources Corporation. The water will be stored at the facility and sprayed onto nearby land.
But some residents fear their wells will be contaminated, and they’re calling for more investigation as Artesian begins to construct its new facility.
For decades, the Harbeson chicken processing plant that now belongs to Allen Harim Foods has discharged treated wastewater into Beaverdam Creek. Allen Family Foods acquired the plant in 1988, but in the 1970s, it was owned by Cargill. Harbeson resident Jeanette Wagner recalled seeing chicken parts floating in the creek in 1976.
Allen Harim spokeswoman Cathy Bassett says they've solved problems related to excess nitrogen and ammonia in the Harbeson plant’s wastewater that they were issued a notice of violation for in 2016.
“I mean this is clean wastewater,” said Bassett, standing near the creek. “We could continue to do this. We absolutely could continue to do this.”
But getting the wastewater out of the creek and onto land offers an opportunity for cleaner disposal — a more environmentally friendly solution, she said.
In a few months, Allen Harim will take advantage of that alternative; they’ll send more than 1.5 million gallons of treated wastewater each day through an 8-mile long pipe to a disposal facility owned by Artesian, called the Artesian Northern Sussex Water Recycling Facility, or ANSWRF.
Artesian will store the water in a large lagoon and spray it onto agricultural land and wooded areas in the Milton area.
“We’ll get out of the creek,” said Allen Harim President and CEO Joe Moran. “A lot of people think you don’t discharge into the creek — the connotation is that’s bad for the environment. You see there’s nothing wrong with the environment we’re producing into today, but it’s more advantageous to go to the fields — field spray right now.”
Last year, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cited Allen Harim for harmful levels of pollutants in its wastewater between 2012 and 2016. Allen Harim says it has cleaned up its act since.
But even before the state flagged those violations, the company says it was talking with Artesian about the planned wastewater project.
According to Artesian’s construction permit application and design development report, the wastewater Allen Harim will send to the facility can have high levels of nitrogen up to 30 mg/L. The national drinking water standard is 10 mg/L.
Artesian says it has determined how large an area needs to be irrigated to effectively lower the nitrogen levels of water reaching the soil beneath the spray fields to meet the drinking water standard.
But some Milton-area residents — like Paul Reid — say they worry the water sprayed onto the fields that will go into their wells won’t be drinkable if Allen Harim’s flow doesn’t meet requirements.
“If they can’t meet the requirements, the stuff they send up here will be contaminated,” Reid said. “Then it will get into the spray fields, sink into the aquifer and provide water for our wells. The wells will be contaminated. It’s only a matter of time how long.”
Reid’s well is less than 100 ft. deep and about 500 ft. away from one of the spray fields. He’s nervous about what will happen to his well if Allen Harim doesn’t fully treat its wastewater before it sends it through the pipe.
The silver lining, Reid said, is Artesian’s involvement in the spray irrigation, and the fact that they have “a clean record and demonstrated capability.”
Artesian’s Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer David Spacht says as Allen Harim’s water moves through the pipe, monitoring capabilities will allow Artesian to see if there’s anything wrong with it.
“If we find that the treatment isn’t going as we expect it to, we have the ability to return that flow back to the facility for further treatment,” Spacht said. “They [Allen Harim] have an on-site facility that will hold two to three days worth of already treated wastewater.”
Spacht says Artesian has had no violations for water discharge in the 15 years they’ve been operating their wastewater systems, and they want to maintain that track record to assure the public they provide quality service. They operate a similar lagoon facility in Middletown.
He told Delaware Public Media in October there are concerns about the spray irrigation and comparisons of Artesian to a "sludge operation" he wants to clear up.
"We’re not that operation," Spacht said. "We’re a clean water operation. It’s been done in Middletown."
But environmentalists aren’t convinced. They say high nitrogen levels in drinking water can lead to numerous health problems, including cancer.
Maria Payan, a consultant for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, has been working with residents near Mountaire Farms’ Millsboro chicken plant to resolve issues with well contamination.
She's also helping Milton-area residents fight Artesian’s new wastewater facility so what happened with residential wells near the Mountaire plant isn’t repeated in Milton.
“People depend on these private wells in order to provide their family with safe drinking water, safe water to cook, safe water to bathe, safe water to brush their teeth. Water is something that we take it so much for granted,” Payan said.
In an email to Delaware Public Media, retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist John Austin mentioned the health effects high nitrates can cause, like a blood disorder in infants. The Department of Health and Social Services and Division of Public Health say high nitrates are a particular concern for babies under 6-months old and pregnant women.
“If Delaware took the risks to public health seriously, regulations would halt disposal operations that pollute offsite wells to above levels safe for human consumption,” Austin wrote. “Faced with serious consequences that would halt operations for polluting offsite wells, businesses would more closely monitor disposal and maintain a margin of safety so [their] operations could continue.”
Artesian’s facility was originally part of a planned development called “The Villages of Elizabethtown” that was later scrapped by developers. DNREC approved the facility and spray irrigation project in 2007, construction plans were sent in 2011 and a construction permit for a facility with three smaller lagoons and a treatment plant was issued in 2013. The permit was set to expire in October 2018.
After Allen Harim came to Artesian about the possibility of partnering on a wastewater disposal project, Artesian revised its design development report with one large lagoon for phase I of the facility. It was approved by DNREC in November.
When Allen Harim and Artesian announced their partnership in early 2017, they said DNREC loaned Allen Harim $11.5 million to upgrade and expand its wastewater treatment facility. About $5 million of that loan was given to Artesian as a one-time impact fee. Artesian is investing about $17 million in the wastewater disposal system.
Now, a grassroots group of Milton-area residents is fighting for their wells. The group, called “Keep Our Wells Clean”, has filed an appeal with the state environmental board against DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin’s decision on Nov. 2 for Artesian’s facility to be built.
The appeal highlights concerns from several residents who live close to the spray fields and believe they would be exposed to odors and possible contamination.
Tony Scarpa is a Milton-area resident and the co-founder of “Keep Our Wells Clean”.
“We felt the decision handed down by Garvin was arbitrary and capricious,” Scarpa said. “It will damage people who live around the area of the spray fields. We feel there were environmental concerns not taken into consideration.”
A public hearing for the appeal hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Scarpa says they’re in it for the long haul. If they need to, they’ll take the matter to court.
In the meantime, Artesian and Allen Harim still need permits to operate the wastewater storage facility. If they get them, Artesian CFO Spacht says the facility will be operational in summer 2018.
The next phase of the project involves construction of an on-site treatment plant and more storage and disposal space, allowing Artesian to accept untreated wastewater.