Update on the Big Stink from Peninsula Compost (“Wilmington Organics Recycing Center”)

Treating the people like garbage in Delaware?

Our previous comments on this matter may have had some effect, but we don’t know what the Markell administration intends to do, and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) secretary David Small did not return a call (We didn’t really expect him to, because we know him, but we tried.).

We’ve had some long conversations with people in the industry, and studied the transcript of the public hearing, and talked with people in various parts of Delaware’s environmental regulatory agency (DNREC).  We draw on our 20 years experience with environmental controversy in Delaware.

Sixteen Delaware State Senators and Representatives sent a letter dated September 10,  2014, and worth reading, asking that the facility be closed.

Nothing has changed our conclusion that the “Wilmington Organics Recycling Center” (Peninsula Compost Group) is the wrong size, in the wrong place, run by the wrong people, and uses the wrong technology.  It should be shut down.

Of course, the problems should have been anticipated.  So why weren’t they?  Why did this debacle happen?  What’s to be learned from it?

This project was first presented, at least to our knowledge, in a committee meeting room at the Delaware legislature.  The only real questions and concerns raised, at least that I recall, came from Green Delaware’s representative.  Others were silent or sucked up.

Subsequently, though, we (Green Delaware) did not try to stop this project.  Should we have done so?  In retrospect, probably.  But we are an org with very limited resources and this, like so many things in Delaware, seemed like a done deal when we found out about it.  The communities we’ve often worked with had already rolled.

Lets look at a few aspects of what went wrong:

Technology

Composting is a controlled form of rotting, and inherently tends to produce foul odors.  There are various ways to do composting.  Some control odors better than others.  The system used at Peninsula basically involves “static piles” under tarps, a simple and cheap approach.

The bigger the composting operation, the more odors.  Peninsula Composting is a VERY large operation, at up to 700 tons per day.

The technology–really, the special fabric tarps–comes from W. L. Gore & Associates.  Gore, calling itself “A uniquely inventive, technology-driven enterprise focused on discovery and product innovation.” is an offshoot of DuPont and has significant political resonance in Delaware.  US Senator Chris Coons, for example, is connected to the Gore family.  Gore are the folks responsible for “Gore-Tex” fabrics.  So mentioning Gore might have a certain tranquilizing effect in Delaware.

In one publication Gore claims:

“…the cover works as a physical barrier against odors and other gaseous substances escaping from the composting material. During the composting procedure a fine film of condensation develops on the inside of the cover in which the odors and other gaseous substances dissolve and drop back into the composting material where they continue to be broken down by bacteria. Compared with composting in open windrows without aeration control, the use of a GORE Cover can achieve a reduction of up to 97% in odor concentrations – without additional filtering installations. With a pore size of approximately 0.2 it is also an effective barrier against spores and microbes. Tests have proven that the system reduces the production of microbes by >99% thus guaranteeing plant workers and nearby residents are well protected. Pathogenic microbes are safely destroyed throughout the composting material.”

These seem like pretty broad claims, considering that it’s really just a fancy tarp that gets removed from time to time during the process.  On the other hand, as a Gore rep pointed out, Gore supplies the technology but don’t entirely control how it gets used.

Some other approaches to composting involve more enclosure of the material and more treatment of the air and fumes coming from the process.

In addition to basic limitations of the chosen technology, it seems very likely that the proportions of material fed into the process weren’t right–that too much food waste and not enough woody materials (bulking materials and nitrogen source) were used.

Doubtless there were other problems, including poor housekeeping and record-keeping.

Environmental justice and community involvement

It’s not been easy to get a copy of the “Community Benefits Agreement” supposedly agreed to by over a dozen organizations.  The agreement was drafted by Ken Kristl of the Widener University Law School.  (various NGOs and agencies go around promoting the concept of “community benefits agreements,” and the DNREC promoted the concept in Southbridge and likely elsewhere, but there is obviously no guarantee that a community will actually benefit from such an agreement–“the Devil is in the details.”)

At the August 27th hearing, community leader Marvin Thomas said : “… the community engaged two companies to evaluate Peninsula Compost operations, and those reports were positive.  Turns out, however, that one of these was a local polluter, NORAMCO, and the other was a firm recommended by Peninsula Compost.  So, no independent technical assessment.  Such an assessment could have predicted the results.

Delaware, unlike some states, has no “Environmental Justice” procedures designed to protect already-put-upon areas like Southbridge from having to tolerate more insults to their health and quality of life.

It appears that the various community representatives did what they have been told to do: Go to meetings, sign a Community Benefits Agreement, complain to the DNREC, blah, blah, blah.  It the end, they were played, and got screwed, yet again.  (From Green Delaware to them: “we could have told you so.”)

While the communities got off to a weak start in dealing with Peninsula, it appears that they have gotten organized in a “913 Alliance” and are bringing effective pressure on the state.

Regulatory Incompetence

Delaware has a Coastal Zone Act, possibly the only really significant environmental law ever to emerge from Delaware.  Passed in 1971, the Act says (excerpt):

It is hereby determined that the coastal areas of Delaware are the most critical areas for the future of the State in terms of the quality of life in the State. It is, therefore, the declared public policy of the State to control the location, extent and type of industrial development in Delaware’s coastal areas. In so doing, the State can better protect the natural environment of its bay and coastal areas and safeguard their use primarily for recreation and tourism. Specifically, this chapter seeks to prohibit entirely the construction of new heavy industry in its coastal areas, which industry is determined to be incompatible with the protection of that natural environment in those areas. While it is the declared public policy of the State to encourage the introduction of new industry into Delaware, the protection of the environment, natural beauty and recreation potential of the State is also of great concern. In order to strike the correct balance between these 2 policies, careful planning based on a thorough understanding of Delaware’s potential and the State’s needs is required. Therefore, control of industrial development other than that of heavy industry in the coastal zone of Delaware through a permit system at the state level is called for.

The site of Peninsula Compost is in the Delaware Coastal Zone and subject to the Act.  Thus the DNREC first needed to decide if the proposed facility was “heavy industry,” and as such prohibited, or was potentially eligible for a permit.

The DNREC prepared a “Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Report” on the Peninsula Composting application.  Were there not serious consequences, it would be funny.  Some excerpts:

“This facility is modeled on the successful Cedar Grover [sic] composting Facility [sic] located in Everett, Washington.” [near Seattle] (page 2)

“There is a slight potential for odors associated with this project.  These odors are not expected to travel past the property boundary.” [emphasis added] (page 3)

“Composting operations would normally generate noxious odors which would would be a concern for neighboring land use occupants [human beings, etc].  However, the Gore (TM) Composting System minimizes the potential for odors by combining a highly controlled environment with a physical barrier that does not allow odors to escape.” (pages 3-4)

“Issues related to this project have been addressed with the community of Southbridge.  The community of Southbridge in South Wilmington is located 0.25 miles from the project site.  Residents of Southbridge were taken to Washington and Nantucket to observe facilities with similar composting systems, and the applicant has entered into [a] Community Benefits Agreement with the community in order to provide jobs for residents.”  [Green Delaware has been told that residents don’t want to work there due to low pay and bad working conditions.]” (pages 4-5)

“The applicant will also plant a border of native trees around the site … and make a financial contribution to the South Wilmington Special Area Management Plan (SAMP).” [a DNREC project]

A public hearing was held on the Coastal Zone Act permit application on April 3, 2008.  So far, repeated requests to the DNREC have not yielded a copy.  It can’t be found, etc.  We suspect this transcript contains more uninformed statements by the applicants and state officials.

The real story

on the Cedar Grove composting operation, which does use the same or similar Gore technology:

Cedar Grove composting faces two new suits over ‘sickening odor’”

From 2005 through 2011, citizens near Cedar Grove composting facilities have filed over 5,500 odor and air quality complaints.”

Citizens for a Smell Free Snohomish County!!”

The Agency found Cedar Grove Composting in violation of odor regulations at both locations, and issued civil penalties (fines) totaling $169,000.”

And so on….

How did it happen that neither Delaware regulators nor the community representatives who apparently visited the Seattle facility knew, or told, the real story?  Was the “assessment report” intentionally falsified?

In the case of the DNREC Coastal Zone Act program, it was probably a total lack of due diligence–staff probably just cut and pasted from the application materials.  This is what Green Delaware has learned to expect from this program.  (Thanks, Phil Cherry.)

When the community reps visited–if in fact they did–the facility was probably specially cleaned up and/or shut down.  The visitors probably sat in conference rooms and listened to dog-and-pony shows.  They didn’t likely knock on doors and talk to local reporters.  They were fooled.  Polluting industries have a lot practice at fooling people, and lots of “consultants” are available to help them do it.

This is the SAMP, a DNREC project set up–supposedly–to offer special help to the Southbridge community:

“The City of Wilmington, the Southbridge Civic Association and the Delaware Coastal
Programs, along with numerous other project partners are working together to develop a
Special Area Management Plan for the revitalization of South Wilmington. This
collaborative planning process will produce a master plan that ensures redevelopment
activities in South Wilmington are socially, economically and environmentally
sustainable. To date, this effort has been successful in bringing together a number of
disconnected stakeholders to articulate a common strategy for addressing South
Wilmington’s problems. The project has also succeeded in focusing public attention on
the area and as a result, continues to leverage additional funding and support.”

(We noticed at the time that DNREC officials made an effort to keep Green Delaware representatives from attending any of these meetings while inviting token brownnoser “enviros” unlikely to have anything meaningful to say.)

The point of is that the DNREC, or at least part of it, had recognized Southbridge as a community needing and deserving some help, yet Peninsula Composting was allowed to happen to this community.

Don’t bother complaining….

The DNREC’s “system” or non-system, for accepting and handing odor complaints apparently remains broken.  I say “remains” because some years ago the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, grossly mismanaging it’s Cherry Island Garbage Dump, was stinking people out of their homes in and around Wilmington.  Many people complained that it was hard to make a complaint to the DNREC, hard even to find out how to do so, and little seemed to happen in response to complaints.  This was extensively discussed a public meetings and promises of improvement made.  More promises not kept, apparently.

Update October 3, 2014:

We heard from Jim Faedtke, who heads the environmental enforcement police in Delaware.  He told us the DNREC received 206 odor complaints (“calls for service”) related to Peninsula Composting/Wilmington Organics Recycling Center between August 2, 2012 and September 9, 2014.  Three criminal charges have been brought against Peninsula.   So, that works out to one ticked issued for every 67 complaints.  One ended with a guilty plea and two are in progress.  These are minor cases on the level of a traffic ticket.  Fines range from $50 to $500.

Faedtke said the odors from the composting facility are distinctive and not likely to be confused by his officers with another odor source.  He also stated, repeatedly, that “we are not a 24 hour agency.”

The complaint line number is 1-800-662-8802.

Another update:

We also heard from Mr. Lee Jarmon, leader of the 913 Alliance.  Mr Jarmon said people are finding that the complaint line number is frequently not answered, and that promised callbacks don’t happen.  He said “we don’t have confidence in DNREC.”

A DNREC fact sheet on odors is here.

Divided we fail

At least these DNREC units/programs have been involved with Peninsula Composting and Southbridge (not considering City, County, and other state activities):

Coastal Zone Act program

Solid waste program

Coastal Programs (different from Coastal Zone Act)

Air quality

Environmental enforcement (odor complaints, etc)

In all these programs there are competent and motivated people as well as other sorts, but there seems to be little coordination.

To effectively deal with one of the biggest composting operations anywhere, the DNREC would have needed to to pull together it’s forces, to work over program boundaries:  To ensure that the proposal was technically sound, that the people proposing it had the ability to operate it properly, that a system was in place to promptly identify and address odor problems, etc.  This isn’t “rocket science,” but was, and likely still is, beyond the organizational capacity of the Department.

Consider this alternative:

An honest environmental assessment would have alerted DNREC to the inevitability of major odor problems.  This should have triggered denial of a Coastal Zone permit.  But if, for political or other non-environmental reasons, the project had to go ahead, the air quality people, the solid waste people, and the enforcement people could have come together to ensure that odors were minimized by including proper operational conditions in the permits, and steps could have been taken to ensure that an effective odor reporting and enforcement system was in place before, not after, the problems started.  None of this happened and DNREC’s present management structure, in spite of cosmetic reorganizations,  may be too inept to make it happen.

Point is:  It’s this regulatory incapacity, more than any fundamental limitations of composting itself, that makes large-scale composting operations intolerable in Delaware.  (Not to mention the hundreds of thousand of people driving through Delaware on I95 and I495, getting the clear olfactory message that Delaware stinks.)

At the end of the day…

This episode epitomizes the political culture of Delaware:  Mostly-Lower-income communities up against a dirty polluter owned by wealthy, politically connected people feeling entitled to do what they want.  (Just look at Andy DiSabatino‘s comments in the transcript for any sign of remorse or apology.)  A governor dedicated to weakening environmental protections.  A fragmented and mismanaged regulatory agency…

Take a look at that awful caricature of “public broadcasting, “Delaware Public Media,” with a story headlined “Fate of food waste sent to Wilmington uncertain if Peninsula Compost facility closes,” as if the fate of the food waste was more important than the fate of the people.

There are all sorts of valid wonkish arguments for composting.  But in this case, for once, the rights of ordinary humans to a decent quality of live should come first.

Industrial interests tend to argue that less regulation creates jobs and profits.  Right-wing, special interest serving politicians like Delaware’s present governor echo this line and hack away at staff and funding for regulatory programs.  Sometimes, in the short run, this strategy appears to work, but in the long run it always backfires.  If problematic industries are let in, whether they be oil refining, chemical manufacturing, credit card banking, composting, or whatever, we have to have the capacity and political will to regulate them.  If not, they will end up causing more harm than good.  Boundaries have to be set and enforced, boundaries that responsible operators can work within profitably, not creating a public nuisance.  Composting is a good example–can’t regulate it effectively; can’t tolerate it.

When Tom Carper was governor he changed the “Welcome To Delaware” state line signs to also read “Land of Tax Free Shopping.”  Perhaps Jack Markell should change “his” signs to read something like “Where it’s always open season on our people.”

Alan Muller

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