Milford-area residents will have to wait until at least February to learn whether a sludge removal company can apply so-called "biosolids" to a 165-acre farm off of McColley Road.
Sussex County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to continue accepting public comment on Clean Delaware's request for a conditional use permit for another 60 days.
Council's vote came after a dozen neighbors voiced their opposition to the permit application, which if approved, would allow the Milton-based company to use Lynn and Karen McColley's 259-acre farm to dispose of waste material from sewage plants, septic systems, poultry plants and restaurant grease traps.
County council was not expected to vote on the permit application Tuesday because it is still awaiting recommendations from the county planning and zoning commission, which held its own public hearing on the request Nov. 15.
But Tuesday's vote means a final decision won't be made for at least two months, regardless of when the planning commission offers its suggestions.
While no further public testimony will be accepted, County Councilman George Cole (R-Ocean View), who proposed the additional 60-day comment period, said he's hoping various state agencies and agricultural trade groups provide written input during the interim.
"Is Hanover Foods concerned about the farming operations in fields adjacent to the proposed site where someone might be growing food for them?" he asked. "I'd also like to hear from the Delaware Poultry Institute on whether they have any problems with these types of operations, and maybe the Delaware Department of Agriculture ought to give us some comments, too."
Several farmers who raise livestock and grow crops near McColley farm raised concerns Tuesday that runoff from the proposed waste disposal could have an adverse impact on their commercial operations, as well as their ability to sell their land in the future.
Other nearby residents said they fear the material that Clean Delaware wants to apply to the McColley farm could end up tainting their well water, poisoning local wildlife and polluting the Mispillion River, which runs just a few hundred feet from the proposed site.
"This process is not healthy for humans or animals," said Mills Road resident Mary Sue Sharp. "Our area is not a dump and we do not deserve this. We don't want it and it's not fair."
Several residents said Clean Delaware should be required to seek out land closer to the communities whose sludge it collects, including Bridgeville, Lewes, Milton and Selbyville.
"There are plenty of fields between them and us for them to try their sludge out, rather than bring it to us an hour away," Angus Drive resident Casey Sharp said. "If it's so good for the soil and crops, why not go where the crops don't grow as well or where people don't live?"
Page 2 of 2 - Gerry Desmond, the general manager at Clean Delaware, said the company is willing to undertake several measures to help alleviate residents' concerns, including the use of buffers, berms and setbacks beyond what is required by DNREC, which is responsible for permitting and inspecting sanitary waste disposal operations. He said the company also would be willing to provide the results of its routine groundwater testing to area residents.
Desmond stressed that Clean Delaware has maintained a safe operation and adhered to all state laws at the Milton, Harbeson and Ellendale properties where it has disposed of material since 1989.
"In those 23 years, we've never been in violation of DNREC permit," he said. "In those 23 years, we've never contaminated a single well. In those 23 years, we've never polluted an adjacent body of water."
However, those assurances seemed to do little to dispel the concerns of area residents, including Mary Walls Grant, who built a house on the McColley farm three years ago.
"The day these biosolids are applied next to my home is the day I no longer feel safe in my home," she told county council with tears in her eyes. "Who would want to raise a child next to a biosolids sludge farm?"