Community workshop on Seaford biogas plant highlights tensions with environmental activists

A proposed biogas facility in Seaford remains controversial, sparking vocal opposition from the local community and environmental activists who are lobbying to stop the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from issuing a permit for the project.

A workshop Wednesday night held by DNREC to discuss the facility created a flashpoint for those tensions.

Maryland-based Bioenergy DevCo, which plans to build a biogas facility, already owns the site, which serves as a composting facility for poultry waste from nearby Perdue processing plants as well as poultry farms operated by Perdue’s contract growers.

Bioenergy DevCo plans to add methane, which will use anaerobic fermentation to extract methane from poultry waste for sale as natural gas. The gas will largely be pumped into trucks – four a day – and transported off-site; Some or all of that gas will likely go to Eastern Shore Natural Gas’ facility in Bridgeville, which recently began developing capacity to pump “unconventional” natural gas into storage tanks. In 2020, Bioenergy DevCo entered into an agreement with Eastern Shore Natural Gas’ parent company, Chesapeake Utilities, to transport biogas to one of its storage facilities on the Eastern Shore.

Managing director Christine McKiernan argues that producing methane for use as fuel is a more sustainable use of poultry waste than simply spreading it on fields as fertilizer or dumping it in landfills, where she says it breaks down and releases methane directly into the atmosphere.

“We are reducing the use of carbon-intensive disposal methods, such as land application and landfills, which release greenhouse gas pollutants,” she said.

Methane is a much more powerful gas than carbon dioxide, although it does not last as long in the atmosphere. Burning methane as natural gas — including burning excess natural gas from the Seaford plant, as Bioenergy DevCo plans to do in an emergency — produces carbon dioxide.

The company also claims a number of other benefits, including reducing the amount of untreated waste that will be washed into East Coast waterways. The fermentation process, the company claims, will dramatically reduce the presence of pathogens in the waste. The plant’s wastewater will be filtered and discharged to Seaford’s sewage treatment plant; McKiernan told those in attendance at the public workshop that by the time the water reaches the facility, it will easily fall within the pollution levels allowed by Seaford.

Several environmental nonprofits, including the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, have voiced support for the plant, although critics point out that Perdue — a partner in the biogas plan — has provided financial support to some of the nonprofits that support the project.

Opposition to the biogas plant comes from many quarters, including poultry organizers: The plant is a mile from a community home to many Spanish- and Haitian-Creole-speaking poultry farmers, and community advocates say Bioenergy DevCo failed to inform accordingly the neighbors of their plans in the respective languages.

“During the conversations in the neighboring Spanish-speaking communities, no one knew about the scope and scale of this project. Few even knew about this project, even though they were the ones most affected by it,” said Reggie Gregoire, Green Campaign Manager for the Working Families Party of Delaware.

And other environmental groups, including the Delaware chapter of the Sierra Club, argued that the company’s claims that the biogas plant would result in a net reduction in carbon emissions — Bioenergy DevCo says the plant would help reduce emissions equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road for a year – false advertising.

Food and Water Watch organizer Greg Layton notes that when poultry waste is stored in a dry, well-ventilated area or properly applied to fields, it does not produce significant amounts of methane.

While many poultry farmers and operators do not store poultry waste in a way that minimizes methane production, Layton argues that the right response is to encourage proper storage and reduce the amount of poultry waste generated on site.

“Creating a new source of greenhouse gases because people mishandle their waste makes no sense to me,” he said.

Layton also questioned the company’s claims that processing poultry waste into methane and compost would reduce harmful runoff into waterways and groundwater. “The waste that goes into the anaerobic digester comes out in a much more water-soluble form. And once it’s sold to farmers, the waste ends up where it’s already going,” he said, noting that some of the most difficult water pollutants are in including nitrogen – will remain part of the compost produced by the enterprise. “The difference is they’re going to make money off of it.”

Layton and other opponents argue that by building a waste-to-methane facility, Bioenergy DevCo will extend the life of both large-scale poultry operations and natural gas infrastructure on the Delmarva Peninsula. “Instead of operating at a scale that would serve the people of this region,” he said, “the peninsula has an unsustainable concentration of national poultry and processing plants.”

Purdue’s agreement to provide waste to Bioenergy DevCo, he added, could stop the adoption of cleaner ways to store and dispose of poultry waste. “If Perdue found a better way to get rid of the waste, it would still have to deliver waste to this facility for years,” he said.

Sussex County Council approved a zoning change for the project in 2021. DNREC is currently reviewing the project’s permit; while the agency will assess potential emissions from the plant itself, Air Quality Director Angela Marconi noted that DNREC will not fact-check Bioenergy DevCo’s carbon offset claim. “It has nothing to do with the air permitting process,” she said.

On October 26, DNREK will hold public hearings on this issue.

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