Locals dismayed as Allen Harim prepares to double chicken capacity in Harbeson
With construction of more chicken houses in Delaware, come more chickens into processing plants like Allen Harim's in Sussex County.
The company has gotten state permission to double the capacity of its Harbeson slaughterhouse. But locals think the DNREC permit leaves too much wiggle room for pollution -- and they say the plant hasn't been a good neighbor, either.
Allen Harim's new state permit will allow it to process up to 2 million birds a week, up from 875,000 right now. The permit also lets up to 2 million gallons of treated wastewater flow from the plant into the Broadkill River. Right now, it maxes out at 1.25 million.
But the DNREC permit also puts stricter limits on how many nutrients, like nitrates, can be in that water. Those can break down ecosystems and contribute to climate change, and Delaware tributaries are full of them.
"The state seems to be just lifting the gates and letting everything out."
Maria Payan with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project says the new five-year permit gives Allen Harim three and a half years to get in compliance.
She says that lets them add capacity before they know they can keep meet EPA runoff limits -- which they haven't been able to at current capacity in the past.
The expansion comes after neighbors successfully fought off Allen Harim's bid to put a processing plant in the old Vlasic Pickle factory in Millsboro.
A DNREC spokesman says in an email that a review of company documentation showed no significant environmental impact from the expansion. They added that Allen Harim has an "excellent" compliance history, and that the permit's timeline should allow for necessary upgrades.
And Allen Harim spokeswoman Cathy Bassett says the company has tried to be up-front about its plans.
"Maybe there's more outreach that needs to be done, and we're going to be doing that in the coming days for those who want to know more about the facts of what Allen Harim as a company is all about, and their commitment to being a good neighbor in Harbeson," she says.
She adds they'll have finished the $11 million upgrade to the plant's wastewater system before they hit the 2 million-chicken ceiling for production. But she couldn't confirm if their output would or wouldn't start ramping up before then.
That's not enough for wellwater-dependent neighbors, who Payan says are "upset."
"They're trying to protect this area, and they're not getting much help from the state," she says. "The state seems to be taking any kind of protective measures and just lifting the gates and letting everything out."
Payan adds that the facility got the new permit even though its sewage system is decades old, and its environmental impact is untested at higher loads.
"The community wants to make sure that [Allen Harim] can handle this," she says. "You don't double the throughput before you have the facility that can actually handle the discharge."
Payan gathered neighbors last week to talk about the plant's potential impacts. She says Allen Harim hasn't done enough public outreach, and DNREC held the only public hearing on the new permit in an unusual location across town.
"I will not see a big company treat us as if we are not to be paid attention to."
Local state Rep. Steve Smyk (R-Milton) has a problem with that, too.
"Allen Harim is not communicating with our people," he says. "Get to be friends with this area first. I will not see a big company treat us as if we are not to be paid attention to."
He's hoping to get the plant, DNREC and other stakeholders to meet and talk more about the permitting structure -- looking at what might obstruct economic growth, versus what's necessary to protect the Chesapeake and Inland Bays.
Those watersheds border the Harbeson area on either side. Activists like Payan say they've been polluted by largely unregulated growth of agriculture -- and letting expansions like Allen Harim's move forward won't help.
"These kind of decisions have put the water where it is in Delaware," she says. "It's this constant bad behavior, bad siting, not going through the preventative measures."
She says her group is looking into legal intervention to head off any pollution from the Harim plant before production starts to increase.