We urge the public who are interested in clean and safe water to attend an upcoming hearing on the ongoing pollution of our local Transquaking River. The legal hearing will take place on Nov. 2, at 1:30 p.m. in the Dorchester County Circuit Court, 206 High St., Cambridge.
Although the hearing is open for public attendance, it is not scheduled for public commentary from the audience. Previous comments and testimony from the public, including the three signatories of this letter, are already part of the record before the court.
Many of our fellow citizens are aware that Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth (DCPG) has been working since 2014 to try to get the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to actually do their regulatory job regarding the industrial pollution emanating from the Valley Proteins rendering plant located on the Transquaking near Linkwood.
Much of our work (including 10 years of water testing) has been behind the scenes, but we have sponsored several well attended forums at the Linkwood fire hall in which local residents have expressed their dismay and frustration over continued wastewater and odor violations which have affected the quality of life in the area surrounding the facility. These continuing violations have also contributed to ongoing harmful algae blooms and fish kills in the Higgins Mill Pond downstream from the rendering plant, where a Health Department sign is posted warning against fishing or swimming in the river and the millpond.
Some of you may recall that around Christmas 2021, a holding lagoon failure at the plant created a massive sludge spill into the Transquaking which forced MDE to mandate a temporary shut down of the facility and an accompanying moratorium on the distribution of Valley Proteins’ created sludge in Maryland. Unfortunately this moratorium was only temporary and now more than ever Dorchester and Wicomico counties are being targeted as the primary recipients of industrial sludge from four states labeled as “soil amendments.” (Source: recently released “U of MD Animal Waste Technology Assessment”.)
At the time of the Christmas sludge spill DCPG, along with the environmental organizations Chesapeake Legal Alliance, Shore Rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had already initiated a legal action against Valley Proteins based on their years-long series of discharge violations into the Transquaking. Eventually, this legal action led to a “consent decree” between Valley Proteins, ( now owned by the parent company Darling Ingredients), MDE, and the aforementioned plaintiffs. This legal document required Valley Proteins to pay a fine to the state of Maryland, submit a plan to upgrade their wastewater treatment system, as well as contribute to the environmental groups’ Transquaking River Watershed Fund which was established to commission a scientific temperature and flow study of the river administered by an independent third party named Earth Data. This study is ongoing.
Unfortunately, what is also ongoing is continued blatant pollution flowing into the Transquaking. In fact, in the last 4 reporting quarters, just since the adoption of the consent decree in September 2022, Valley Proteins has self-reported discharge violations in every quarter.
One statistic from the most recent quarter (July 1 - Oct. 6, 2023) shows an exceedance for BOD (a metric which measures possible oxygen depletion caused by excess nutrients entering the water) of a staggering 355%! (Source: ECHO database where companies provide their pollution numbers to the federal EPA.)
What hasn’t been fixed at the Linkwood facility is simply this: far too much pollution is still being released directly into the Transquaking. At the same time, the greater Transquaking watershed, which drains into Fishing Bay and on into the Chesapeake, is suffering a “doubled peril” from the vast increase of harmful nutrients in the largely unregulated sludge being irresponsibly dispersed on the land. Much of that sludge is a direct result of the rendering process at the Valley Proteins plant.
The sad fact, based on both their history of violations and their link to the added threat from excess application of sludge, is that unless MDE requires them by law to not do so, they will continue contributing to the death of the river.
Perhaps even sadder is the fact that the technology already exists for them to achieve discharge limits that are actually meaningful. For example, there is a process called ENR (enhanced nitrogen removal) which is required for municipal sewage treatment plants like the one in Cambridge, and also for new residential septic tanks being installed near the water. The ENR process is capable of greatly reducing the content of excess nitrogen in discharged wastewater.
Common sense would dictate that a profitable industry directly discharging into a stream would be required to use this process but the current MDE operating permit allows Valley Proteins to propose a treatment facility that allows three times the nitrogen release compared to ENR treatment.
And it allows them to increase the volume of their wastewater discharge to over three times the current level! These are only two examples of many regarding the laxity in regulation which MDE has adopted in their oversight of this industry.
DCPG has never called for the closing of the rendering plant at Linkwood. The chicken industry is a large part of Delmarva’s economy and the handling of waste products is a necessary part of the food production process. However, the waste disposal should not come at the cost of broken laws, a ruined river, and threats to public health. That is why DCPG is back in court demanding that MDE be required to revise and strengthen the discharge permit issued to Valley Proteins/Darling in 2022. We are joined in this action by The Wicomico Environmental Trust (WET), Friends of the Nanticoke, and the other environmental groups listed in paragraph 3 above.
Again, the upcoming court hearing on this issue is in Dorchester County Circuit Court on Nov. 2, at 1:30 p.m. While there will be no opportunity for additional public testimony, members of the public are allowed to attend and we urge concerned citizens to do so.
The authors are members of the DCPG Board of Directors.