LINKWOOD — Maryland Department of the Environment has issued a new draft wastewater permit for the Valley Proteins chicken rendering facility, which is the largest point source polluter in the Transquaking River watershed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Matt Pluta, director of Riverkeeper Programs for the ShoreRivers conversation group, referred to the 2006 expired permit as “the oldest zombie permit in the state.”

“Valley Proteins’ permit expired in 2006 and MDE has let it continue operating without updated controls for 15 years ...,” Pluta said. “We look forward to continue working to make sure the permit has modern limits and all past violations are addressed.”

In April, ShoreRivers, Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth and Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit against Valley Proteins for violating its wastewater permit. ShoreRivers and Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth are being represented by Chesapeake Legal Alliance in the effort.

The draft permit was released for public review following years of attempts by environmental and community organizations to compel MDE to update Valley Proteins’ current permit, which EPA records show Valley Proteins has consistently violated. That permit expired in 2006 and has been administratively continued by MDE ever since.

“For years, CBF has been concerned about Valley Proteins’ operations and the ways in which the polluted wastewater the company pumps into the Transquaking River (a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay) has harmed water quality. We’re encouraged MDE is finally taking steps to update the facility’s wastewater permit after more than a decade of inaction,” said Alan Girard, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore director. “However, appropriate actions must be taken in response to the company’s repeated violations of the current permit and to ensure there is a commitment from Valley Proteins to comply with new pollution limits.”

“We’ve seen significant violations in meeting EPA standards of nitrogen and phosphorous, in particular,” said A.J. Metcalf with CBF. Other pollutants, including ammonia and higher than acceptable levels of bacteria, have also been documented, he noted.

Excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorous fuel algae blooms, and Metcalf cited one unnamed tributary to nearby to Higgins Millpond, which is protected for water contact recreation, fishing, aquatic life, and wildlife, had also been significantly impacted.

According to CBF, in years when records have been available, Valley Proteins exceeded permit limits for pollutants including fecal coliform, nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia. In one quarter, from July to September 2020, the company exceeded the ammonia limits by 2,518%, according to EPA’s enforcement and compliance database. In other periods, Valley Proteins has failed to file complete documents detailing what pollutants are being released into the groundwater and river from the plant.

CBF also noted wastewater leaking from two wastewater storage lagoons on the plant property that may be causing high nitrate levels in monitoring wells and polluting the groundwater.

“The company has also failed to properly document the composition of the thousands of tons of sludge being hauled away from the property each year and the quantities of sludge that are land applied or treated at another wastewater treatment facility,” CBF said earlier this year. “These issues are likely contributing to pollution problems in the area and surrounding waterways.”

Valley Proteins is an industrial plant in Linkwood that uses a chemical process to render chicken carcasses into protein for animal feed, which it then sells.

“Valley Proteins is responsible for the waste it produces, like all companies and individuals are,” said Pluta, in April. “But while most of us follow the environmental laws designed to protect our shared environment, Valley Proteins has been discharging its waste at illegally high levels into the Transquaking River. They are polluting this shared resource, which harms the river and our ability to enjoy it. This company must be held accountable for their actions, the same way any of us would be if we violated a law.”

Valley Proteins prides itself on making a sustainable difference, Michael Smith, co-owner and vice chairman of the third-generation family owned business, said.

Valley bought the Linkwood facility eight years ago and has been working with MDE since then. Smith noted when the plant was acquired from the previous owners, it had been operating under a temporary permit. Working toward a revised permit has been a lengthy process, Smith said, and in the working stages of revision MDE sends out draft for public comment.

He is hopeful this latest draft is one that is agreeable to both Valley and the state.

At one point, MDE discussed with Vally a pilot program, funded by the state, using new technology for nutrient reduction, Smith said, however public concerns that a private industry would receive funds curtailed the project.

In some ways, the public has done a disservice to themselves, Smith said. In waiting for MDE to issue a revised permit, Valley has been unable to invest in and improve the facility without knowing exactly what the rules are. Standing compliance onsite is still very good, Smith said, adding, the Linkwood facility has the tightest environmental restrictions of any in the company.

The services provided by Valley are not only important to the poultry industry, but to the environment as a whole. Smith said most are unaware that if rendering plants such as theirs did not exist, that waste would go to a landfill — estimated to be full in under three years without rendering — and leading to widespread disease.

One of the efforts taken by Valley to reduce environmental emissions is the conversion of steam released through the rendering process to treated wastewater.

Quietly taking care of 18 million pounds a week of discarded product and creating a usable by product that nourishes a global food supply is not a glamorous business, Smith said, but contrary to popular belief, it is a much needed and very green business.

Fred Pomeroy, president of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, said, “After seven years of advocacy on this issue, DCPG is pleased to finally get affirmation from MDE that the longstanding pollution issues will be addressed in the Transquaking River. We are committed to working with the agency, our attorneys at Chesapeake Legal Alliance, partner organizations, and Valley Proteins to make sure that happens.”

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