Perdue Farms Inc. sued over pollutants State cites discharge from processing plant

March 15, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

State environmental officials sued Perdue Farms Inc. yesterday, accusing the huge Eastern Shore poultry producer of polluting a creek that empties into one of Maryland's fragile coastal bays.

The Maryland Department of the Environment filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court alleging that the former Showell Farms poultry processing plant has repeatedly discharged excessive pollutants over the past year into a tributary of Church Branch in Worcester County.

Church Branch feeds into the St. Martin River and into Isle of Wight Bay near Ocean City. A federal study last year found that Isle of Wight and other coastal bays in Maryland and Delaware are as badly degraded by nutrient pollution as the Chesapeake Bay. The two states joined with the Environmental Protection Agency and local governments in pledging to restore the estuaries.

The state is seeking an injunction to halt the alleged pollution and penalties of up to $10,000 per violation per day. With more than 300 wastewater violations listed in the suit, agency spokesman Quentin Banks said the fines could total $3.6 million.

Perdue issued a statement saying the company has been trying to fix pollution problems at the Showell Farms facility since acquiring it in 1995. The company is building a new $2.5 million wastewater treatment system, which spokesman Richard Auletta said should be completed by the end of the year.

Auletta said company executives plan to meet with state environmental officials next week to discuss the case.

In 1991, when Showell Farms was independently owned, the state issued the plant a permit to discharge 829,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily into the coastal creek.

Environmental officials amended the permit in 1994, requiring Showell Farms to take steps to clean up its discharge.

The suit charges that since March 1996, the facility has repeatedly violated limits on the levels of ammonia, nitrogen, organic wastes and fecal coliform bacteria permitted in its wastewater discharge.

Auletta, the Perdue spokesman, said that some of the allegedly illegal discharges occurred during a Delmarva Power & Light Co. outage that blacked out most of the Eastern Shore in May 1996. That power loss knocked out the poultry plant's wastewater treatment system, he said.

Perdue said in its statement that the company discovered after buying Showell Farms that $2 million had been spent on a plan to spray the poultry plant's wastewater on nearby cropland. Perdue executives feared that spraying the nitrate-rich wastewater would contaminate ground water, and the company notified the state in September 1996 that it would not proceed.

"It just didn't make sense; it was going to create another problem," Auletta said.

Excessive nitrates in drinking water pose health threats for infants, and scientists say that nitrates in ground water can worsen nutrient pollution of the bays by seeping into streams.

Perdue has since begun work on a new biological treatment system for the wastewater that should remedy all the discharge problems, the company statement said.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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