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Sussex County commission delays action on controversial biogas plan

Delaware Department of Agriculture

A Sussex County commission pressed pause on approving a plan to generate natural gas from chicken waste in Seaford. 

Advocates have mobilized against the biogas proposal for months.

The Maryland-based, multi-national Bioenergy Development Group wants to build an anaerobic digester that would turn waste from chicken processing into natural gas and compost at an existing chicken composting facility in Seaford. The company has already established a 20-year agreement with the former owner, Perdue. 

Bioenergy went before the Sussex County Planning and Zoning commission Thursday seeking a “conditional use” approval for the project — which would be on land zoned Agricultural Residential.  The commission voted to delay making a decision on the project. 

Peter Ettinger, chief development officer with Bioenergy, told commissioners Thursday the project is a good example of a “circular” economy.

“We are taking materials that some people consider as waste, and we are saying, look at them as an opportunity,” Ettinger said. 

An attorney for the company acknowledged Thursday that more than 200 pages of opposing comments were submitted to the commission. 

Environmental advocates who oppose the project call it “greenwashing” — and worry it could lead to more pollution in an area they say is already overburdened by the poultry industry. 

“Poultry factory farms have a variety of environmental impacts that are already severely concentrated in this area and in these communities, both air pollution, water pollution, etc.,” said Tyler Lobdell, an attorney with the environmental non-profit Food and Water Watch, said in an interview Friday. “This facility would bring more yet more pollution to be managed locally.”

Company officials pushed back on the worries about pollution Thursday, saying the anaerobic digester is a “closed system.” They noted the facility would have several air emissions points that would need to be permitted by the state. 

Lobdell also argues the project is a fundamentally inappropriate use for the Agricultural Residential zone, characterizing it as a “refinery” — a word company officials reject. 

Lobdell and others, including Maria Payan, Selbyville resident and regional consultant for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, also raised concerns over transparency. 

Bioenergy officials told County commissioners Thursday that the primary input to the anaerobic digester would be Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF), a liquified waste byproduct of chicken processing. However, the description of Bioenergy’s application that Sussex County published on its website says the anaerobic digester would process chicken litter, or bedding from chicken houses mixed with manure, urine, feathers and carcasses. 

“This is being totally misrepresented to the public,” Payan wrote in an email Friday. 

The project needs approval from the County—as well as permits from state regulatory agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). Sussex County Council is expected to hear the proposal next month. 

Michael Globetti, a DNREC spokesperson, said in an email Friday that applicants for DNREC permits must show compliance with local land use and zoning requirements, and the agency will not issue a permit if the project has not first received proper zoning approval. He said Bioenergy has not yet completed an application for a number of the DNREC permits that would be required for its proposal. 

“While separate from the county zoning process, DNREC's permit process provides the public information about the permit application and offers the public the opportunity to comment in the matter,” Globetti said. 


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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