Millsboro-area residents urged to test wells for contamination

Lawyers assembling on sidelines of Mountaire violations case

Date Published: 
Jan. 12, 2018

When residential drinking wells are potentially contaminated because a major poultry plant didn’t treat wastewater properly, lawyers are generally willing to invest some time and effort. And, in this case, they’re confident a settlement is coming.

After reading the news articles and hearing from the first few residents who said Mountaire was responsible for contaminating their wells, attorneys at the Delaware firm of Baird, Mandalas & Brockstedt LLC mailed postcards to households across the Millsboro area, inviting them to a town hall-style meeting on Jan. 8 at Millsboro Town Center.

“We’re here to take care of your community and hold Mountaire responsible for what they’ve done. … We’re used to dealing with corporate defendants,” said Philip Federico of the firm Schochor, Federico & Staton P.A., based in Washington, D.C.

“We have experience covering large, complex cases, just like this. Right now, we’re working to understand the severity of the contamination and the effects on the residents of Sussex County, Delaware,” Chase Brockstedt said.

With nitrates above the 10 mg/L limit permitted appearing in private wells around Mountaire’s Millsboro-area plant, the legal partnership has begun hiring experts to investigate: real estate appraisers to calculate loss in property values; medical experts in gastroenterology, toxicology, cardiology and infection diseases to address the physical toll; hydrology experts to document where the water’s flowing.

In November, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control cited Mountaire for a wastewater treatment system officials said had failed to properly remove nitrogen, fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS).

In just 2017, Mountaire had at least 100 violations in a wastewater system that spray-irrigates all effluent from its plant onto crop fields north and south of the plant on Route 24 in Millsboro. The facility can spray a monthly average of 2.6 million gallons per day across 928 acres on 13 fields. Testing wells in that area routinely find contaminants to be above permitted levels.

After Mountaire was cited for high nitrate levels on-site (and subsequently fired employees who had allowed the water to bypass its proper treatment system), the State began testing nearby private wells for contamination. Mountaire is now following DNREC’s recommendation of providing bottled water to affected residences.

“Mountaire’s plant is in the highly competitive big chicken market and has significantly increased its production since Mountaire bought it from Townsend’s in 2000,” said Roger Truitt, an environmental law consultant. Thousands of chickens are processed there daily, each requiring 5 to 10 gallons of water to process.

That’s a lot of water needing treatment.

The attorneys on Jan. 8 laid out their plan: test contaminants in clients’ wells; hire experts; determine damages and reparation costs; push for permanent solutions (and likely settlement money); and “force Mountaire to be a good neighbor … and comply with environmental laws and permits,” Brockstedt said.

Residents considered risks, remedies

The ultimate answer for residents’ concerns is still unknown. Could it be digging deeper wells or putting people on a public water supply? Time will tell.

Drinking nitrates is the biggest concern, not bathing, said Keeve Bachman, public health consultant. But nitrates can only be removed through special filtration, not through boiling. The EPA is currently investigating nitrates’ effect on cancer, blood, endocrinology/thyroid, Type 1 diabetes, reproductive and developmental issues, Bachman said.

Methemoglobinemia and “blue baby syndrome” are the most immediate illnesses connected to such contamination.

“It’s not unusual for this groundwater, laden with nitrates, to travel as much as 1 to 2 feet per day,” or one football field a year, Truitt said of its impact on the aquifer. “It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

“It’s awful — it’s just terrible, ’cause you don’t know the impact, how bad it is,” Paula Pinkett, who uses her private well water for cooking, bathing and drinking, said after the meeting. Her husband prefers bottled water, he said, since the water where they live on Hollyville Road frequently smells bad. They’ve lived there, northwest of the poultry plant, since 1996.

Their well hasn’t been tested yet, but some of their neighbors have found elevated nitrates. Pinkett said she hasn’t heard an update since DNREC tested wells in the nearby Indian Meadows neighborhood. But living near three irrigation systems, Pinkett said she has always been concerned with the well water, “ever since I lived there, just knowing that Mountaire was behind me.”

Until the issue is sorted out, people are being encouraged to get their wells tested and find out for sure if elevated contaminants are showing up in their wells. They can buy filtration systems to treat nitrates.

Right now, residences with private wells appear to be most at risk — not those on Millsboro’s municipal public water system, although the entire area historically has less-than-stellar water quality. Although everyone is trying to determine the extent of the contamination, wells are more likely to be impacted on the north side of the Indian River and east of Swan Creek, Truitt said.

But only testing can produce answers. After that, lawyers will have a case if they can prove those particular nitrates or contaminants came from Mountaire.

And that is just the beginning. Federico said he expects at least three to six months of investigation before the law firm files court paperwork.

Attorneys are scrambling to get better figures on Mountaire’s wastewater history, on which even Mountaire claims to not have concrete figures.

The lawyers’ goal is not to destroy Mountaire, they said, since it’s still a major employer and economic driver in Sussex County’s agricultural industry.

Mountaire has also been contacting residents to offer deeper wells or water filtration systems. Some residents were baffled to find that Mountaire had delivered bottled water to their homes, without any kind of notification. But that’s just a “Band-Aid” over the problem, residents said.

One woman suggested suing DNREC, although attorneys said that’s a different kind of suit altogether. They said they preferred to work with DNREC to improve enforcement.

The attorneys haven’t decided to dive in with a class-action suit or other method. Federico said clients will not pay any fees in the meantime, but that attorneys would be paid out of any settlement funds.

“Frankly it’s a no-risk proposition,” he said.

There can be power in numbers, which is why attorneys are trying to line up as many clients as possible. Although Federico wouldn’t say how many clients have officially come on board, the partnership has met with “a dozen or more” people out of the “75 to 100” who have contacted them. In the meantime, those in attendance at the meeting were submitting contact information to the attorneys on Monday night.

“If we don’t stick together, we don’t have a chance. They will eat us alive,” one resident said.

People interested in learning more can contact Baird, Mandalas and Brockstedt through www.mountairewaterpollution.com or www.bmbde.com or by calling (302) 645-2262.

Another Delaware law firm publicly began seeking clients just before Christmas. Jacobs & Crumplar P.A. have partnered with the law firm of Nidel & Nace PLLC to investigate well-water claims relating to Mountaire.