Zoning commission hears pros, cons of pellet plant

By Lynn R. Parks

At Thursday evening's hearing before the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission, supporters of a planned chicken manure pelletizing plant said that the plant is necessary to protect agriculture on Delmarva. But opponents argued that the site selected for the plant is not appropriate.
"We desire to keep the family farm viable," said Dr. Keith Rinehart, vice president of environmental services for Perdue, which would be a partner in the plant. "But we have an issue we need to deal with. We prefer to do that rather than wait for legislation."
That issue, he said, is a surplus of nutrients on Delmarva land. According to scientists, those nutrients, which come from chicken manure applied to crops, wash off the land and pollute the peninsula's inland bays.
"We need to be proactive, to protect the total economy of the region," said Rinehart.
While all that phosphorus and nitrogen is a burden to Delmarva, he added, it is a desired commodity elsewhere. "Farmers in the mid-west sold their nutrients in the form of corn to feed
chickens and we are giving it back to them," said Mike Ferguson, senior manager of Perdue-AgriRecycle. Perdue has joined forces with AgriRecycle, based in Missouri, to build the plant.
"This is a way to turn what has up to now been a problem into a product which can be sold here and abroad," wrote state Rep Charles West (D-Gumboro) in a letter that was read by the commission at the start of the hearing.
The $10 million plant, which will turn chicken manure into fertilizer pellets, is being proposed for 228 acres between Blades and Laurel, along alternate US 13. The plant itself will take up only 30 acres; the remainder of the land, some tilled, some wooded, will act as a buffer. The zoning change is required, said Perdue lawyer John Sergovic, because the recycling plant is not readily classifiable in existing zoning laws.
Wayne Hudson, general manager of Perdue-AgriRecycle, said that in selecting a location for the plant, planners looked at concentrations of poultry growers. "A plant like this needs a constant supply and that's what brought us to Delmarva," said Ferguson. "Raw material is highly concentrated here in a small area."

"Sussex County is the heaviest [poultry-growing] area in the nation," Hudson added. And in Sussex, poultry growers are concentrated between Laurel and Seaford. In the 10-mile radius around the proposed plant site, 16.5 million birds are produced annually.
But for some, that reasoning is not enough. "This plant should not be located adjacent to Gum Branch," said Ralph Dill, Laurel, in a letter that was read before the hearing. Gum Branch, which runs through the property, is a tributary of the Nanticoke River.
Also in a letter, Lawrence Steele III, Bethel, questioned whether roads in the area are large enough to handle truck traffic that will be associated with the plant. "This will result in heavy industry being parachuted into prime Sussex County farmland," he said. "The plant should be placed at a heavy industrial site."
He suggested that the plant be constructed near the Perdue grain storage facility north of Bridgeville. "Bridgeville is outside of the concentrated area we looked at," Hudson said.
In answering traffic concerns, Hudson said that an average of nine to 11 trucks will visit the site daily. "They will come in Monday through Saturday, in daylight hours only," he said. He added that current traffic on alternate US 13 between Blades and Laurel consists of 6,184 vehicles a day; on US 13 between Blades and Laurel, 21,113 vehicles per day. And he repeated Perdue's claim that no discharge will be put into Gum Branch. A retention pond that will be constructed will be for rainwater only. "There will be no discharge," he said.
The plant will be totally enclosed, Hudson said, and will be "highly automated. If any aspect fails, that shuts the plant down."
All trucks coming into the plant will have to be tightly covered with waterproof tarps. Drivers that do not comply will not be permitted back on the site. Trains, which will leave the site every two and a half weeks, will carry the pellets in hopper cars with sealed lids.
Hudson said that all poultry growers will be able to participate in the Perdue-AgriRecycle program. Already, 176 growers within a 20-mile radius of the plant have signed up to participate. Perdue-AgriRecycle will collect manure from the chicken houses at no cost to the grower; Hudson said that the farms of those 176 growers will produce 87,000 tons of manure over a two- to three-year period.
At the conclusion of Thursday's hearing, the commission tabled the issue until its next hearing, in about two weeks. While that hearing will be open to the public, the commission will receive no more input from proponents or opponents. Its recommendation on the matter will be forwarded to the country council for a final determination.