Environmentalists took action Aug. 11 to stop pollution of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River that is coming from a plant that processes sewage from two poultry processing plants and two Rockingham County towns.

The Waterkeeper Alliance and two of its affiliates filed a notice of intent to sue Sheaffer International L.L.C. over its releases of phosphorous and nitrogen into the branch of the Shenandoah, a Potomac River tributary that has had massive fish kills in recent years.

“These are some of the highest magnitudes we’ve seen,” said Bill Gerlach of the Irvington, N.Y.-based alliance.

The Timberville plant, operated by Sheaffer subsidiary SIL Cleanwater, exceeded its 2005 permit limit for phosphorous discharges by 6,028 percent and for nitrogen by 1,004 percent, Gerlach said. The plant’s permit allows an annual discharge of 7,054 pounds of phosphorous, but it dumped 384,965 pounds into the river in 2005, an alliance statement said. “That’s 60 years of their allotted nutrients in one year,” Gerlach said.

Jack Sheaffer, a hydrologist and chairman of Sheaffer International, said the pollution discharges have resulted from problems he’s had with the state bureaucracy.

The plant, which opened six years ago, supplies treated wastewater from Timberville and Broadway as well as poultry processors to irrigate 530 acres of farmland.

As designed, Sheaffer said, no water would have been discharged into the Shenandoah. However, as the plant was about to go into operation, he said state officials reduced the amount of water that could go into the irrigation system. “What we couldn’t irrigate had to go into the river,” he said. “You can’t make it disappear.’”

Sheaffer said he applied in February for a state Department of Environmental Quality permit for equipment to reduce the phosphorous content in the wastewater, but is still waiting for the go-ahead.

DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said the agency has worked for years to get the plant to correct permit violations, adding that violations continued despite a legal agreement with the plant in 2002 to take steps to stop them.

Jeff Kelble, who as Shenandoah Riverkeeper proposed the action against the plant, called it “a very difficult case” and said neither Sheaffer nor the state is a villain. He praised the plant’s goal to recycle nutrients as environmentally sound.

Scientists continue to seek the cause of last year’s massive fish kill on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, when 80 percent of the smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish developed lesions that resembled cigar burns and died. A similar kill occurred on the North Fork in 2004.