State suing Allen Foods Officials say waste from Shore plant hurts ground water

'History of noncompliance'

Lawsuit filed after months of negotiation over Cordova facility

August 14, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

State environmental officials filed suit yesterday against Allen Family Foods Inc., accusing the Delaware-based company of willfully contaminating ground water on the Eastern Shore with wastewater from its chicken processing plant in Cordova.

The lawsuit, filed by the attorney general's office, asks the Talbot County Circuit Court to grant an injunction ordering Allen to obey the law and to clean up tainted ground water in the vicinity of the farm fields where the company has been spraying its wastewater.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is also asking the court to fine Allen up to $10,000 a day -- or $3.65 million total -- for more than a year's worth of continuous pollution violations.

The lawsuit contends that Allen has rendered the ground water unsafe to drink by spraying up to a million gallons daily of nitrate-laden wastewater on nearly 400 acres of farmland near its Talbot County plant. The ground water there seeps into a tributary of Tuckahoe Creek, which flows into the Choptank River.

Infants drinking water with elevated nitrates can suffer life-threatening health problems. Nitrate levels in the ground water below Allen's spray fields are up to four times the amount deemed safe, the state's suit says.

Nitrates in ground water also seep into nearby streams, where they may contribute to outbreaks of fish-killing microorganisms.

"We're pleased to see that the state is moving ahead to protect public health and the waters of Chesapeake Bay," said Michael Shultz, vice president for public affairs for Chesapeake Bay XTC Foundation. "Allen Family Foods has an opportunity to become an industry leader and end pollution from poultry processing plants and farms."

The state's action follows months of negotiations between environmental officials and Allen representatives, which the company broke off in late July. The lawsuit accuses the company of spraying wastewater with higher nitrate levels than the state permits, and with failing to properly monitor the spraying.

"Our attempts to work with the Allen Family Foods to reach an acceptable settlement were unsuccessful," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said in a prepared statement. "Maryland must take decisive action when violations are willful and jeopardize the quality of our water resources."

But Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for Allen, charged last night that the state had sued his client for political reasons, after being accused by environmentalists of being soft on the poultry industry's pollution violations.

The Environmental Department filed suit in July against Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest poultry producer, seeking up to $5.4 million in fines for dumping chicken waste in a creek near its Berlin processing plant. That suit came after officials discovered that the company had continued to pollute the stream two months after the state ordered it to stop.

Allen's Cordova plant processes up to 800,000 chickens per week, and employs 2,800 people.

Evans said that before talks broke down in late July, Allen had promised to build a $3.5 million treatment plant for its chicken wastes. Construction is expected to be finished in about a month, which Evans said is before the December deadline set by the state.

The lobbyist contended that Allen has a "25-year history with this department of good relations."

The state's lawsuit, however, says that Allen "has a history of noncompliance." The firm regularly exceeded state limits on nitrogen in its wastewater discharge from 1990 to 1994.

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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