Environmental groups: Seaford poultry digester project needs public input

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 — Environmental watchdogs are sounding alarm over plans of a biogas renewable energy developer that partnered with Perdue Farms a year ago, claiming the planned anaerobic digester project south of Seaford will pose a public health threat.

Additionally, Food & Water Watch and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project claim to have knowledge of “backroom dealings” between Sussex County officials and Bioenergy DevCo in attempts to bypass public comment and hearings on the proposed project.

“Essentially, it was limited to email traffic. But the email meeting invites make clear that, as early as December of last year, Bioenergy DevCo was in relatively frequent communication with Sussex County officials,” said Tyler Lobdell, staff attorney at Food & Water Watch.

Mr. Lobdell said “there are essentially assurances via email” that the “county officials will streamline the process, will work with Bioenergy to make sure that the approval process is as easy as possible.”

“And for a facility of this size and potential impacts on the local communities, we don’t believe that should be the position of county officials. Their constituents should be their main concern,” said Mr. Lobdell. “Those documents are basis for our belief that there is collusion or sort of improper pressuring of the county officials to take the track that they have.”

Planning & Zoning response
That allegation took Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Wheatley by surprise.

“The only thing I can tell you is that I wasn’t privy to any backroom deals or any conversation about trying to circumvent public input,” said Mr. Wheatley. “I wasn’t privy to any discussions ahead of time. And I am not aware of any of the other commissioners having talked to anyone. I know that I wasn’t part of any outside discussions about how to handle it or anything like that.”

Peter Ettinger, chief development officer for BDC, said any communication with county or state officials has been for informational purposes.

“We work with (the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control). We work with Sussex County to understand really what the requirements of the permit are — what we can and cannot do. Those are the only types of discussions we have had in any way, shape or form,” Mr. Ettinger said.

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 fertilizer-processing facility south of Seaford.

At the time of the announcement, the Perdue AgriRecycle facility was permitted to compost 30,000 tons of poultry-processing and hatchery byproducts from poultry operations, as well as litter from farms, on the Delmarva Peninsula, according to BDC.

Bioenergy currently operates that compost facility and is seeking permit approvals from DNREC for the anaerobic digester process.

“They (Perdue) shut down the fertilizer, the chicken pelletizer, six or seven years ago. They transitioned to a compost facility, and we currently operate that facility and will continue to operate that facility,” said Mr. Ettinger. “We believe that this material that we would take through the anaerobic process also has great application in adding and enhancing compost quality, as well.”

BDC spokeswoman Kristen Maynard explained the wait in obtaining the DNREC permit.

“Due to COVID, a lot of delays occurred in the permitting process,” she said. “But we look forward to things picking back up in 2021, as we follow DNREC’s lead on this.”

DNREC spokeswoman Nikki Lavoie on Dec. 1 said the company “has not yet applied for a number of the DNREC permits that would be required for this proposal.”

Bioenergy seeks response
Mr. Ettinger said BDC welcomes community input.

“It is important to know that we have just offered our permits to DNREC. We, as we do in every state, work with regulatory agencies to understand the permit requirements: what is required under the Clean Air law, what is required under clean soil or waste management. We have just submitted permits,” he said.

“Frankly, we are looking forward to a hearing. We are looking forward to talking to the community. We believe that what we do and bring to a community is significant in terms of the environment and business being able to live together. I would like to suggest we are being pretty transparent in terms of how we work within a community.”

Mr. Ettinger explained that the anaerobic process utilizes primarily residual organics from the poultry industry — processing wastes, some litters, some hatchery wastes. The anaerobic 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 to its very basic qualities,” he said.

“It produces gas. As gas goes to the top, we capture the gas. We will be working 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.”

“And it is important to understand that this process is completely enclosed,” said Mr. Ettinger, who added that BDC brings to the United States 22 years of experience in building 230 anaerobic plants throughout Europe.

“Plants that have basically been able to take materials that would have typically been headed for incineration, land application or landfills and being able to, in a natural way through the use of microbials, through a natural process that is similar to a cow’s stomach on a utility scale, be able to adapt and break products down,” said Mr. Ettinger.

“Think about a cow. A cow creates gas, except we capture that gas. A cow also creates a manure product. We capture that, what we call digestate because it has already been cooked through the process over a 30-day period. Can you have your cake and eat it, too? We believe that anaerobic digestion combined with composting is a very worthy investment and Delmarva is the right place to be.”

Under terms of the agreement with Perdue Farms, BDC was to purchase the existing composting facility and operate it while working within the DNREC and Sussex County permits process to construct an anaerobic digester at the site.

“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 is budgeting $35 million to $45 million for the anaerobic digester project. The hope is to have the facility up and running by fall 2021.

“In a perfect world, September. It assumes, rightly or wrongly, that we work through the permit process. If everything aligns well on the permit side, 2021 September, October, somewhere in there. It’s local labor, local folks who are building this,” Mr. Ettinger said. “And this is not a ‘Perdue’ plant. It’s open/available to anybody in the poultry industry who wants to find a smarter environmental way to go and manage their residuals.”

Zoning a worry
Zoning is among the concerns of Food & Water Watch and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, Mr. Lobdell said.

“One of our primary concerns with how this project is being dealt with (is zoning). At this point, it is at the local level with respect to necessary zoning approvals,” said Mr. Lobdell. “The collusion is with respect to Sussex County officials surrounding that zoning decision. The site — a gas-production facility — is being proposed (in an area) that is zoned Ag Residential. It needs to be approved as a conditional use or a variance or however the county ultimately decides to deal with it.

“Unfortunately, what the county has started back in April was a very truncated process, where essentially, the county officials are pretending that the construction and operation of a gas-production facility is not a change in use from the previous composting site,” said Mr. Lobdell.

At the April 23 Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, commission members Mr. Wheatley, Kim Hoey-Stevenson, Keller Hopkins, Holly Wingate and J. Bruce Mears approved a new conditional-use application from Bioenergy Development Group, LLC, to revise the conditions of CU 1962, the original conditional use approved for Perdue.

The commission’s 5-0 vote followed Sussex County Planning & Zoning Director Jamie Whitehouse’s response to a question, concurring that P&Z staff views the new application as falling under the scope of the original conditional use.

“It was originally a conditional use, and then, these folks came in with a site plan revision based on what they were doing, and I believe the commission decided that it didn’t rise to the level of a public hearing because essentially, they’re just doing the same thing. They are just doing it a different way,” said Mr. Wheatley.

“It just wasn’t controversial. I think that is the way we looked at it … it is basically the same thing,” he added. “You are trying to get rid of poultry waste, and this is just another way to do it. We didn’t see it as being a significant departure from what the original intent of the use was. It came up as a site plan, and we acted on it.”

In the Dec. 1 statement, Ms. Lavoie said zoning issues must be settled before the department will issue a permit.

“Applicants for Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control permits must show compliance with local land-use and zoning requirements for a facility like this, and a permit will not be issued if proper zoning approval has not been received,” she said.

On Nov. 21, Bioenergy scheduled a four-hour Discovery Day public event, both virtually and on site at the former Perdue facility.

“We’ve run a couple Discovery Days,” said Mr. Ettinger. “We are open. We are transparent. We want everybody to come and see it, to understand this technology and why it is a valued asset.”

‘Bad deal for Delawareans’
Seth Gladstone, director of media for Food & Water Watch, said BDC’s Discovery Day publicity event was “an attempt to draw public support for its proposed poultry waste-digestion facility in Seaford, Delaware.”

Maria Payan, a Selbyville resident and consultant for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, said the digester plant would be detrimental to the area.

“This kind of project in Seaford is a bad deal for Delawareans. Any plans to bring poultry litter from across the region threatens the health, safety and environment of all who live here,” she said. “This Bioenergy press event is a charade.”

Ms. Payan listed numerous concerns.

“There is truck traffic. There is flare-up. There is explosion. There is emissions. There is the use of a lot of water, with the poultry. And the fact that we’re bringing waste in from three states into a state where we can’t seem to manage our own waste,” she said.

Mr. Lobdell agreed.

“Bioenergy may be trying to pull off a dog and pony show to promote its proposal, but what it’s really doing is attempting to nefariously push through a dirty, dangerous factory farm biogas project with as little public input and oversight as possible — and local officials seem to be playing right along,” he said.

“State and local elected officials need to step in and ensure that Bioenergy and county appointees are following every inch of the law in this project-review process.”

Gina Burton of the Sussex Health & Environmental Network said the public is being excluded from the process.

“It is shameful that the public is being left out of the local zoning process for a project of this magnitude during the pandemic. Communities deserve a seat at the table. Our right to live, work, pray and play in a healthy and safe environment should not be an afterthought,” she said.

Food & Water Watch and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project submitted their concerns in a letter sent in October to DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin.

Among the issues contained in that letter was: “Bioenergy proposes to develop a large gas production facility with several anaerobic digesters, associated control technologies such as gas flares and an oxidizer, a wastewater treatment facility, and other infrastructure on an existing composting site. According to Bioenergy, these digesters will extract gas from up to 200,000 tons of waste annually from the region’s poultry concentrated animal feeding operations, with much of the remaining waste likely to be disposed of on local fields.”

The environmental groups also accused local officials of improperly excluding public input into zoning decisions and seeking to illegally approve the gas-production facility in an area reserved for agriculture and single-family homes.

“The sort of collusion or whatever they are trying to claim is just totally not true,” said Ms. Maynard. “We haven’t even gotten to the part of the permit process where a public or comment period is required, although we are excited for that moment. We are excited about this technology and want to talk about it.

“I don’t think they understand the full benefits of what this technology brings to the market. We all want the same goal — clean water, clean soil, healthy soil. This technology is the way to get there,” she added.

Ms. Lavoie said dispensing information about the process and gathering input from the community is part of DNREC’s procedure.

“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,” Ms. Lavoie stated Dec. 1.

As far as testimony during Planning & Zoning sessions, comment is welcome during public hearings but not taken during regular P&Z meeting proceedings.

“It’s a public meeting, but we don’t take public comment, that is true. It is true that when it is a site-plan revision like that, it is done at a public meeting but there isn’t public testimony,” said Mr. Wheatley. “So folks can observe what is happening, but they really don’t have the opportunity to speak. That happens when the use or issue is considered to be minor or the use is similar.”

Based in Howard County, Maryland, Bioenergy DevCo, through its wholly owned subsidiary BTS Biogas, owns, operates and maintains more than 200 facilities in countries around the world, including in Italy, France, Japan and the United Kingdom.

“When we invest in a community, we are here for 30 years,” said Mr. Ettinger. “We bring an investment based around our ability to solve challenges from industry and the environment.”