Ammonia Levels Drop, But Still High
Cause Of Pollution Remains Under Investigation At Plant
Posted: November 15, 2012
While the cause of heightened levels of ammonia leaking into a nearby creek from an Edinburg chicken processing plant remains unknown, concentrations of the chemical have been slowly declining, according to officials with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Gary Flory, agricultural and compliance manager for the DEQ’s Harrisonburg office, said employees at the George’s Inc. plant reported on Oct. 29 that the facility’s wastewater plant was emitting higher than permitted levels of ammonia into Stony Creek.
It was the second time in three months the plant violated its water pollution permit.
In August, the nitrogen and ammonia levels were found to be above concentrations allowed by the permit. The problem was resolved and the levels returned to normal within just one week.
This time, however, the pollution has persisted for nearly three weeks and still with no hints as to why, Flory said.
The amount of ammonia being discharged into the creek, however, recently began dropping. Flory said that at 1 p.m. Tuesday the discharge samples indicated 36 parts per million of ammonia; by 5 p.m. that number dropped to 30. As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, the level was at 25 parts per million.
“We’re hoping that trend continues,” he said. “It is, of course, nice to see those numbers coming down.”
The plant emits 1.2 million gallons of discharge every day. George’s is allowed, per its permit, to emit up to 8.9 parts per million of ammonia.
“They are about four times what their permit level is,” Flory said.
Bob Kenney, vice president of Virginia operations for George’s, said the slightly lower concentrations are encouraging.
“I’m not going to say I’m out of the water, but I’m a lot more hopeful from what I’ve seen in the last few days,” he said.
Kenney said all efforts are focused on trying to get the ammonia levels down and the wastewater treatment plant back in working order.
He said several wastewater treatment industry experts, engineers and labs are working toward the goal.
“Clearly, we’re not happy about what’s happening here,” Kenney said. “When it’s all said and done, we need to reanalyze the whole system again and ask, ‘Is there anything else we can do differently [or] is there a way to detect a problem before it makes its way through the whole system?’”
Flory said DEQ officials will be at the plant today doing additional sampling of the stream to test the impact on wildlife.
Ammonia in high concentrations can prove toxic to river-dwelling creatures, particularly those that feed on the river bottom.
“They are the foundation of the food chain. If you kill those, the fish that eat those will die and it damages the ecosystem,” Flory said.
For now, the plant continues to operate at full capacity. Shutting down operation or slowing production could only exacerbate the problem by providing the bacteria intended to break down harmful chemicals, such as ammonia, with less food, which could cause them to die.
Flory said that if the cause of the pollution is not found soon, closing the plant could be an option, though not yet.
“If we continue on and we are not able to identify the problem and get the plant back to operation, we certainly cannot continue forever to allow the facility to discharge in violation of the permit,” he said.
In the next week, Flory said DEQ is due to receive river toxicity data that he thinks will help in the investigation.
“We’re playing it day by day,” he said. “Hopefully, having that additional data will help our understanding increase.”
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