GEORGETOWN — With lots to digest, the commission deferred.
Two-plus hours of presentations by Bioenergy DevCo and public hearing testimony punctuated by support and opposition ended Thursday evening with Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission’s motion for deferral on Bioenergy’s proposed conditional use request to construct an anaerobic digestor system, augmenting Bioenergy’s current composting operation at the former Perdue Recycle facility south of Seaford.
If approved and all required permitting is granted, Bioenergy DevCo plans to construct four anaerobic digestors, three pre-tanks and water treatment system on the 228.88-acre property on Enviro Way off Seaford Road south of Blades.
The Bioenergy proposal is scheduled to go before County Council March 16.
BDC will utilize anaerobic digestion, using mostly Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) waste in an enclosed, controlled process that creates a biogas that would be marketed in partnership with Chesapeake Utilities, according to Peter Ettinger, chief development officer for Bioenergy DevCo.
“When we build what is known as an anaerobic digestor, we’re members of community for 25-30 years. We do everything and anything that we can do to become a stable part of meeting challenges, being able to achieve certain goals and objectives,” said Mr. Ettinger. “We believe in the reuse, recycling and repurposing of materials.”
Mr. Ettinger explained that DAF waste is materials in the wastewater process — “fats, pieces and parts and everything else that’s left that you can’t do anything with” — that rise to the top.
Emphasizing that anaerobic digestion is a totally enclosed process, Mr. Ettinger compared it to a cow’s stomach on an industrial scale.
“Cows eat grass. That is an organic input. They create gas. What we do differently is we capture that gas. We manage that gas,” said Mr. Ettinger, noting that through natural fermentation two secondary green products are created. “We own our own microbiology lab. This is not a simple process. This is not you just throw materials in and hope for the best. You have to understand science. How do you use microbials? How do you use science in the best way of combining materials to produce not only a renewable natural gas product, a completely green product, but also how do you create a digestate that can be used as a compost?”
In business for more than two decades, BDC has developed 220 plants around the world, with two currently in the United States and several others in the works. The closest anaerobic digestor is in Jessup, Md., a 100,000 ton-per-year facility co-located with the Maryland Food Center Authority.
The proposed digestor system would accommodate and process about 220,000 tons of waste per year from poultry farmers and processors throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.
The task before the PZ commission is the requested conditional use of land in an AR-1 agricultural residential district to amend a series of amendments to permit the processing and handling of poultry litter to include nutrient recovery for natural gas and electrical generation. The plant is to be located on 228-plus acres in Broad Creek Hundred.
Opponents challenged several aspects of the proposal.
Confusion about proposal
“We’re confused about DAF versus litter. Then can I say the application is deficient,” said Maria Payan, consultant with Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, one of the groups with concerns about BDC’s request. “That’s where the confusion is.”
Robert Wheatley, chairman of Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission, responded.
“I think a lot of the confusion has originated from reports in the media and being circulated by folks who have not read the folder in the zoning file,” said Mr. Wheatley. “There wasn’t any confusion. I don’t think in my mind that we’re not talking about poultry litter. We were talking about something different.”
Dennis Schrader, an attorney with Morris James representing Bioenergy, clarified information about the project.
“It is not a refinery. There are no truck bombs,” Mr. Schrader said. “It is environmentally sound. There are a lot of environmentally sound things that are going to be tested by DNREC, DelDOT, Fire Marshal … in order to make sure that they are well thought out and well designed.”
Christine McKiernan, Bioenergy DevCo’s Director Engineering/Construction, echoed that point.
“What is really important is safety in design, construction and operation,” Ms. McKiernan said. “Those are critical across the board.”
Ms. McKiernan emphasized all local, state and federal mandates must be followed so that “it has been designed with those aspects in mind; when people come to work there every day, they need to go home every day, in the same way they showed up. That is really important.”
Poultry Industry support
Bioenergy’s project has the support of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, which offered a press statement on Friday.
“The chicken community welcomes new, vetted ways to re-use chicken litter, which hundreds of Delaware farmers already recycle by using it as organic, slow-release plant food for crops like corn, wheat, soybeans and mushrooms,” said DPI spokesman James Fisher. “New avenues for recycling litter will also help Delaware maintain and improve its progress in meeting water quality goals, having already met the state’s Chesapeake Bay Program interim goals for reducing phosphorus and sediment pollution.”
“The notion that chicken farms are spreading across Delaware unchecked, though, is just wrong. The truth is there are fewer operating chicken farms in Delmarva today (1,278 farms) than there were 20 years ago (2,492 farms in 2000) or even 10 years ago (1,696 farms in 2010),” said Mr. Fisher. “In the context of strict regulations and permit requirements, farmers are constantly asked to do more with less. That’s the reality in the chicken community, not uncontrolled growth.”
“I do agree that if we don’t work with our farmers, we might not be a big farming county a whole lot longer,” said Sussex Planning and Zoning Commissioner Keller Hopkins.
Milton resident Keith Steck said there “seems to be a be a lot of holes in this application. I didn’t see anything regarding a PLUS (Planned Land Use Service review.”
He also expressed concerns about “methane gas, a byproduct of the digestion.”
“If this is going to be covered, you’re going to have methane under the cover. That is an explosive of combustible gas. It is important that is part of the story,” said Mr. Steck. “We’re trying to compare apples and oranges by saying that this is really a fancy composting exercise. It’s not. What comes out of this process will be a combustible product. It is a gas that could explode. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just saying it’s a different product. Compost doesn’t explode.”
“That is certainly something that this group has to take into consideration,” said Mr. Wheatley. “That is indeed a difference.”
“It seems that the story is ever shifting in terms of the project description,” said Food & Water Watch Staff Attorney Tyler Lobdell. “And it is probably I guess why Bioenergy is asking for a conditional use with no additional protective conditions.”
The concern, Mr. Lodbell stated, is that Bioenergy will be given “essentially a blank check … potentially at the expense of local quality of life and environmental integrity.”
“A conditional use is a use that is conditioned,” Mr. Lobdell said. “It seems perplexing to me that no additional protection would be warranted when we are going from a compost facility handling poultry litter to a gas production and refining facility that apparently won’t handle poultry litter. This is a complete change of use for the site, which warrants protection for the community.”
In response, Mr. Schrader said that with a conditional use, conditions “can be placed” on the applicant. Conditions can be recommended by Planning and Zoning and forwarded to Sussex County Council, which can also place conditions.
BDC’s project is subject to multiple state and local agency reviews and permit approvals, including DelDOT, State Fire Marshal, Sussex County Conservation district and multiple divisions of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control — air, water supply, and resource recovery.
Wastewater from the AD process will be treated on site utilizing a purpose-built treatment plant constructed by BDC. Daily wastewater volume will be less than 60,000 gallons at full capacity.
Effluent quality from the on-site treatment will meet Sussex County Public Sewer Discharge Standards; some effluent will be recycled back into the AD process.
BDC is evaluating wastewater options for connection to local municipal systems.
Chris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, said the CIB supports the project. Anaerobic digestion, he said, will greatly reduce pollutants, notably phosphorous levels in Sussex watersheds, while creating renewable, environmentally friendly byproducts.
“It is consistent with our management plan,” said Mr. Bason. “My point is anaerobic digestion is an important part of the solution in managing both the poultry processing facility wastes and the poultry litter resource for healthy water quality in Sussex.”
Mr. Bason said the project should be closely inspected and regulated.
“DNREC should ensure the site design and permit for controlling runoff and wastewater go beyond minimum requirements by taking into account the increasing intensity,” said Mr. Bason. “We ask that you both support this facility and we suggest that you make these requests of DNREC, in order to ensure a successful and publicly accepted project that sets an example for the beneficial use of large scale anaerobic digestion in the region.”
With a phone-in comment, Rehoboth resident Cheryl Siskin, chair of the Sierra Club’s Conservation Committee, said while driving around the area of the proposed AD plant she found a concentration of residential uses.
“You mentioned that site had a permit in 1995 …,” said Ms. Siskin. “Just because a land use might have been appropriate in 1995 doesn’t mean today’s thinking should support continuation of that land use.”
“We’re taking materials that some people consider as waste and we are saying, ‘Look at them as opportunity,’” said Mr. Ettinger. “We’re providing tried, true technology and we’re transforming that so-called waste and creating two new products of great value to any local community.”
Mr. Ettinger said he is constantly reminded by former Delaware Gov. (Tom) Carper’s response when asked to choose between a vibrant poultry industry and a good environment, and “he (Carper) goes, ‘I’ll choose both.’ That is what we believe we epitomize by the use of anaerobic digestion.”
Following the commission’s deferral, Bioenergy Development Group LLC’s conditional use request (CU 2258) is on the agenda under “old business” for the Feb. 18 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, which will be held at Delaware Tech’s Carter Partnership Center. Seating is limited and public health requirements — masks and social distancing — will be enforced. The meeting will also be streamed live at https://sussexcountyde.gov/council-chamber-broadcast.