Opponents of poultry waste plan in Seaford seek help; public hearing Thursday

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Bioenergy DevCo, a global developer of anaerobic digestion facilities, plans to construct a digester facility to augment its composting operation south of Seaford. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

SEAFORD — Those opposed to a proposed anaerobic digestion process that would convert poultry organics and waste into a marketable gas product are seeking support from Delaware’s governor. Tuesday morning, 32 groups, led by Food & Water Watch, issued a letter to Gov. John Carney, calling for his intervention in Bioenergy DevCo’s attempt to build what the groups label a “dangerous new biogas operations (facility) in Sussex County.” The letter, which calls on the governor to oppose Bioenergy’s proposed poultry waste digestion facility south of Seaford at the former Perdue AgriRecycle facility, comes in advance of a hearing Thursday before the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission. “This week, the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission has a duty to recommend denial of Bioenergy’s conditional use application for this project,” said Tyler Lobdell, staff attorney at Food & Water Watch. “This developer’s interest in rushing this project through the approval process without much review or oversight, and with no additional protections for local residents, should tell us everything we need to know about it. This project is bad for Sussex County, and it’s bad for Delaware. County decision-makers and (the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control), under the direction of Gov. Carney, should use their authority to deny permits for this facility. The future of Sussex County depends on it.” Opposition explains stance Environmental, public health and faith groups across Delaware and the region joined forces to issue this letter, according to a press release from Phoebe Galt of Food & Water Watch. This attempt by Bioenergy to build out a new anaerobic digestion plant in Seaford is “a greenwashed nightmare,” said the letter. “This biogas project is a corporate scheme to take further advantage of Seaford, while selling itself to investors as a win-win-win. The developers seek to exploit an area with more than 20% of its population living below the poverty level and suffering from water-pollution problems of past industrial abuse,” Shelly Cohen, member of the Sussex Health and Environmental Network, said. “This project will only further jeopardize the health and economic status of the community, already ill-prepared to take on the additional public health and environmental problems sure to result from the facility. This project would be a knockout punch to the small city.” Richard Barasso, spokesman for the Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth, said that “SARG is of the opinion that the positives and negatives of this project have not been clearly presented to the public for their consideration through an open and transparent process. SARG fully endorses having Bioenergy submit a new request for a conditional use, requiring public hearings to fully vet the proposal (and,) ultimately, requiring a public vote by County Council, the elected representatives of the people.” Selbyville resident Maria Payan, a consultant for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project said this “factory farm biogas scheme is yet another attempt to entrench poultry farms in the region.” “Creating a market for the waste these polluting and toxic factory farms produce will allow Perdue and Bioenergy to continue to rake in profits, while local community members will be forced to deal with the fallout,” Ms. Payan said. “Gov. Carney and Sussex County elected officials have a choice to make — will they cave to the polluting factory farm industry or will they invest in building a better future for those of us who live here?” Bioenergy background In fall 2019, Bioenergy, a global developer of anaerobic digestion facilities that create renewable energy and healthy soil products from organic material, announced a 20-year partnership with Perdue Farms for the supply of organic material from Perdue processing facilities, as well as the purchase and management of the organic commercial fertilizer-processing facility south of Seaford. At the time the partnership was announced, Perdue’s AgriRecycle facility was permitted to compost 30,000 tons of poultry-processing and hatchery byproducts from poultry operations, as well as poultry litter from farms, on the Delmarva Peninsula, according to Bioenergy. Bioenergy now operates that compost facility and is seeking permit approvals from DNREC for the anaerobic digester process.

During an interview in mid-December 2020, Peter Ettinger, chief development officer for Bioenergy, explained that the anaerobic process utilizes primarily residual organics from the poultry industry — processing wastes, some litters and some hatchery wastes. The process creates a gas product that would be marketed. “It is an all-natural process. There are no flames, no additional burning. This is a complete microbial process that breaks down that organic (material) to its very basic qualities,” Mr. Ettinger said. “It produces gas. As gas goes to (the) top, we capture the gas.” Mr. Ettinger, in the December interview, said Bioenergy plans to work with Chesapeake Utilities to take that gas and “actually provide consumers and businesses in Sussex County and throughout Delaware with a truly renewable natural gas. This is not fossil fuel-based in any way, shape or form. It starts from the ground, from an organic process, and it ends up as a truly organic natural gas.” Noting the 20-year agreement with Perdue Farms to provide chicken manure for the digester, opposing groups claim the Bioenergy plant would incentivize chicken factory farm buildout across the region, further entrenching those farms and the pollution that comes with them. The groups also urge Gov. Carney to consider the significant greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution they say should be expected from the burning of factory farm biogas, including the negative health effects Seaford residents will see. “Our current compost facility is under permit by DNREC. So we meet and exceed the recording requirements. … We will follow those same standards when we build the anaerobic digester,” said Mr. Ettinger. BDC has budgeted $35 million to $45 million for the anaerobic digester project. The hope is to have the facility up and running by this fall. “We believe what we are saying is filled with factual information on the operation of an anaerobic digester, and its influence on the economic development in the region, while being able to help or support the poultry industry, as they make decisions on the best way to manage waste,” Mr. Ettinger said. “I am not discriminatory when it comes to waste. I’m not discriminatory when it comes to being able to provide everybody with an opportunity to, if you clean up at the end of the parade, … to find a way to go and manage that. My deal is to say, ‘How do we help manage waste that should not be land-applied, which should not go to landfills, which should not, if there was incineration here, be in an incinerator?” The ordinance seeking Bioenergy’s request for a conditional use was introduced at the Jan. 12 County Council meeting. Regardless of the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision, the request will come before Sussex County Council on March 16 for a public hearing. Mr. Ettinger preferred to not get into further discussion until after the Planning & Zoning Commission date. “Our P&Z meeting is really very specific: Is this property zoned appropriately to put an anaerobic digester?” Mr. Ettinger said. “If it is, then there is a discussion on (if) we accept well-known, well-researched, well-tried, treated and tested technologies that have been successful around the U.S. “Zoning basically says, ‘Is the land appropriate?’ County Council’s (hearing afterward) will be a time in which we can talk about science and, frankly, facts.” To attend Thursday’s hearing Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting will be held at Delaware Technical Community College’s Carter Partnership Center in Georgetown. It is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.; the Bioenergy conditional use request is listed last on the agenda and is tentatively projected to begin around 5. The public is encouraged to view the meeting online. The meeting will be streamed live at sussexcountyde.gov/council-chamber-broadcast. Anyone attending in person will be required to go through a wellness and security screening, including a no-touch temperature check. Members of the public will be required to wear a facial mask. Seating capacity is limited, and seating assignments will be enforced.