Three environmental groups have moved to file a lawsuit against a Virginia company that operates a chicken rendering plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, accusing it of repeatedly exceeding pollution limits and fouling a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, ShoreRivers and Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth sent a notice of intent to sue to Valley Proteins, Inc., on April 13. The groups say the action is aimed at bringing wastewater discharges at the company’s Linkwood facility, near Cambridge, into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

Truck at Valley Proteins, MD

A truck leaves the Valley Proteins chicken rendering plant in Linkwood, MD.

The plant discharges into a pond that forms the headwaters of the Transquaking River, which empties into the Chesapeake about 20 miles downstream. The river has been classified since 1996 as impaired by nutrients.

The threatened lawsuit comes in the wake of the Maryland legislature’s decision to award $7.6 million to the company to upgrade the plant’s wastewater treatment facility. The Maryland Department of the Environment grant was initially set at $13 million, but lawmakers reduced the total after critics contended that the private company could afford to pick up a larger share of the tab.

State regulators have identified the Valley Proteins plant as the largest single contributor of nitrogen to the Transquaking, estimating that about one-third of the river’s nitrogen originates at the facility. In the Bay, the nutrient causes algae blooms that lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” where there is almost no aquatic life.

“At this point, we feel like nothing will change except through litigation,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We hope the outcome will result in a cleaner Transquaking River and Chesapeake Bay for those who depend on these waterways for their livelihoods and recreation.” 

A Valley Proteins official said the company was still reviewing the notice of intent. “There’s nothing really for us to comment on at this time until we look at it further,” said Michael Smith, Valley Proteins’ vice chairman.

The legal action is focused on the plant’s environmental violations, not the state’s grant funding, said Matt Pluta, director of ShoreRivers’ river-monitoring program.

Headwaters of Transquaking River, MD

The headwaters of the Transquaking River flow near the Valley Proteins chicken rendering facility east of Cambridge, MD.

Valley Proteins uses a chemical process to transform unused chicken parts into protein for animal feed. The Dorchester County plant’s water-pollution permit expired in 2006, but the state has administratively extended it for 15 years, allowing the facility to continue operating.

The plant frequently exceeds its limits for pollutants such as fecal coliform, nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia, the environmental groups say, citing discharge reports compiled by the company for state and federal regulators. During three months last summer, for example, the facility exceeded its ammonia limits by 2,518%, the groups said.

The groups contend in their notice that the high nitrate levels found in monitoring wells may be from water leaking from two wastewater storage lagoons on the property and into the groundwater. The notice also argues that the company hasn’t properly documented the thousands of tons of sludge being hauled away from the property each year.

Volunteers with the Dorchester Citizens group have also found higher-than-average levels of E. coli bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus in the river. The groups also say there have been reports of oxygen-depleted water, a leading indicator of potential dead zones, and that algae blooms have been documented near where the plant’s waste discharges into the water. 

The company has been fined a total of $5,000 over the last five years, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database. Pluta said the groups hope to exact stiffer penalties for violations they believe are still occurring.

The April 13 notice gives Valley Proteins 60 days to potentially settle claims before a formal lawsuit is filed against the company.  

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