Health report: Harim plant at former Vlasic site would add to nearby communities’ pollution woes

TEASER Vlasic plant vlasic tower

A Health Impact Assessment compiled by the University of Maryland says a poultry processing plant based at Pinnacle Foods’ former pickle plant in Millsboro would add to air and water pollution woes in nearby communities.

MILLSBORO – A University of Maryland study says Allen Harim’s proposed conversion of a former pickle plant into large-scale poultry processing would further pollute water and air in nearby communities that are already facing pollution from multiple sources.

Unveiled at a public meeting July 25 at the Indian River Senior Center, the Rapid Health Impact Assessment study compiled by the University of Maryland’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health/School of Public Health concurs with concerns of citizens opposing Harim’s plan, including the grass-roots citizens’ group Protecting Our Indian River.

“Industry is important. The poultry industry is important,” said Maria Payan, a consultant with Socially Responsible Agricultural Project that is supporting POIR. “No one is going to stand up here and say it’s not important to Delaware. We need chickens. We need the economics. But you cannot let an industry destroy the very environment that they (residents) need.”

“Agriculture is not what agriculture was 50 years ago. These are not ‘mom and pop’ farms. These are major industrialized operations that don’t belong in the middle of a community,” Ms. Payan said.

Key findings in the health impact study:

  • Within a two-mile radius of the Harim Millsboro plant, there are two Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, a coal-fired power plant, an animal vaccine factory, a concrete factory and a poultry processing plant’
  • There are several potential hazardous emissions and elevated levels of chemicals that already exist on the Harim Millsboro site such as TCE, hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, chloride, chromium, nitrates, particulate matter and VOC’s;
  • Sociodemographic variables for residents in the area of interest are lower than county, state or nationwide levels;
  • The health status of the Millsboro community is lower than county, state and federal levels;
  • The projected size and amount of poultry to be processed at the Harim Millsboro plant will likely result in increased levels of air and water pollution; and
  • The current odor problem will be exacerbated by the addition of the Harim Millsboro plant.

“I think the most important thing is that the community is already dealing with a lot of adverse health effects,” said University of Maryland graduate student Leah Baskins Graves, who compiled the assessment for her capstone project. “There is already a processing plant across the river. There is the power plant, the Merck vaccine …and to add an additional processing plant to the community it would just impact the health status of the residents who are already impacted.”

The study recommends that:

  • the Harim plant should move to a more remote area with fewer existing sources of pollution and fewer residents dealing with adverse health effects; and
  • DNREC (Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control) should reassess the setback distances between the site and wells/property lines.

“They don’t build these next to the Governor’s house,” said Ms. Payan. ”They build these in poor communities.”

The Health Impact Assessment is a process that helps evaluate the potential health effects of a plan, project or policy before it is built or implemented. An HIA can provide recommendations to increase positive health outcomes and minimize adverse health outcomes. HIA brings potential public health impacts and considerations to the decision-making process for plans, projects, and policies that fall outside the traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.

“You have movement in the country to use healthy impact assessments for local decision making,” Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an assistant professor with the University of Maryland’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “The idea behind the Health Impact Assessment is you are a screening process. We talk with community members. The HIA can help bring together and help synthesize a lot of the secondary information out there. And it is a tool that helps to educate citizens.”

“Then you do a baseline health assessment. You have got to find what the baseline health issues are,” said Dr. Wilson. “That includes environmental health, like air pollution, hazards and also human health. What are the disease rates? Who are vulnerable populations? How many poor folks, elderly do you have, or people who may be medically under-served? How many children do you have? How many low-income folks do you have? They may be adversely impacted or they may not be as resilient because of limited resources or because of age they may be more susceptible.”

Citing water and air pollution, citizens’ health and traffic issues, POIR, SRAP and Inland Bays Foundation have opposed Harim’s plan with several legal challenges.

Recently, Sussex County Judge Richard F. Stokes upheld a Sussex County Board of Adjustment decision, granting a special-use exception to Allen Harim Foods for the renovation and conversion of the former Pinnacle Foods Vlasic pickle plant outside of Millsboro into a chicken processing plant.

A decision on a possible appeal of Judge Stokes’ ruling had not been made as of the HIA presentation.

POIR is also challenging then DNREC Sec. Collin O’Mara’s Dec. 24, 2013 order that endorsed the plan of Allen Harim’s consulting firm, BP Environmental Inc., which called for long-term monitoring and possible additional remediation.

The Notice of Appeal states that the conclusions by DNREC “are not supported (and in fact are contradicted) by substantial evidence in the record,” and that the approved brownfield remedial action plan “did not comply with the requirements of the Hazardous Substances Control Act and the regulations issued there under,” according to POIR spokeswoman Cindy Wilton.

The groups are asking that the court reverse the Environmental Appeals Board approval and send the issue back to DNREC for development of a lawful, science-based plan.

In April 2015, Judge Stokes heard arguments regarding Protecting Our Indian River and the Inland Bays Foundation’s appeal of a June 2014 ruling by the state EAB, contending the board erred in favoring DNREC’s decision that streamlines the siting for an industrial poultry operation on the polluted brownfield site of Pinnacle Food Group’s former pickle plant.

In their legal challenge, the groups say there is no certainty that contaminants and pollutants found in drinking water of area residents is not coming from the former pickle plant property.

Remediation includes onsite monitoring of water and soil but not beyond the borders of Pinnacle’s Iron Branch Road property.

“We’re challenging you legally,” said Ms. Payan. “After two years of this, you would think they would know better, that we are not going away.”

Ms. Payan noted that none of the county/state elected officials invited attended the meeting.

“We have waited for months for this very comprehensive study,” she said. “They need to be here.”

One state official attended: James Brunswick, Community Ombudsman for DNREC.

“All around the state I see problems like the one here … with communities that are being impacted by multiple sources of pollution that are impacting multiple populations,” said Mr. Brunswick, who made reference to environmental justice – an executive order issued by President William Clinton in 1994.

The purpose of environmental justice is to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.

“Environmental justice is the fair and meaningful treatment of people and meaningful involvement of people in the decision making process. I think that might be where this group may really want to focus some of their efforts.”

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