Delaware plant spills nearly 1 million gallons of partially treated slaughterhouse waste

Raw chickens hang from colorful machinery

In this file photo, chickens are carried through a poultry slaughterhouse on mechanical arms. (Alice Welch/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Mountaire Farms slaughterhouse in Millsboro, Delaware, is once again in regulators’ crosshairs, after a spill of nearly 1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater about 5 a.m. Wednesday.

The cause of the spill was a mechanical failure in a new part of the slaughterhouse wastewater-treatment system that went online last month.

Too much feces, fat and blood in slaughterhouse wastewater can lead to excessive nitrogen loads and bacteria levels, which can contaminate streams and groundwater and affect the health of people and wildlife.

A Mountaire spokeswoman said the spill was contained on site and didn’t reach nearby Swann Creek. The wastewater was in the end stages of treatment, she added.

“There is absolutely no risk to our employees, to the public, or to the environment as a result of this release,” Catherine Bassett, Mountaire’s director of communications, said in a statement. “Cleanup should be completed by Friday, and a thorough inspection of the recycling system is being done before it will be brought back into service.”

Staff from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Groundwater Discharges Section inspected the site Friday and verified that the cleanup had been completed by pumping the released wastewater back into the system for retreatment and attending to soil in the area of the release, the agency said in a statement.

Wednesday’s incident was the latest in a string of violations by the company. In November 2017, DNREC issued Mountaire a notice of violation for spraying wastewater contaminated with chicken blood, guts, and feces onto corn and soy fields in Millsboro.

In many cases, the nitrogen concentration in the wastewater spray exceeded the legal limit, sometimes by more than 40 times. At one point, the fecal coliform in the spray wastewater was more than 5,000 times the legal limit.

In June, the company entered a consent decree with DNREC, in which the agency fined Mountaire $625,000, offering to lower the fine to $420,000 if the company provided an alternate water supply to residents.

Hundreds of residents are also suing the company for damages, claiming the wastewater contaminated their drinking water.

Thomas Crumplar, director of law firm Jacobs and Crumplar, represents more than 100 residents suing the company and has been spearheading the litigation against Mountaire with the help of Washington, D.C., environmental law firm Nidel and Nace.

Crumplar called Wednesday’s spill the actions of a “serial polluter.”

“It’s just further evidence that it’s a totally dysfunctional company that has no business operating in southern Delaware,” he said.

Last year, Crumplar also filed a motion to intervene in the state’s consent decree with the company, which he called a sweetheart deal.

“We don’t think the citizens of Delaware were properly represented in that deal,” he said.  “I think DNREC should tear up that consent decree and start over in view of this most recent catastrophe.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, said the spill “raises even more questions about the safety and environmental impact” of Mountaire’s Millsboro plant.

“I will push for a full accounting of the causes and impacts of this spill,” Carper said in a statement, “and will do everything in my power to ensure neighbors in the surrounding Millsboro communities, Sussex County, and all Delawareans can enjoy their most basic right to clean, safe drinking water.”

The Millsboro plant is in Sussex County, home to five chicken slaughterhouses in just over 1,000 square miles. Four of the plants, including those owned by Mountaire Farms and Allen Harim, have been hit with water-pollution violation notices in the last four years.

Crumplar, who said that chicken farming is an important part of Delaware’s history, said the scale and industrialization of the practice have threatened local communities.

“Raising chickens is a vital and intrinsic part of Delmarva Peninsula,” he said. “But Mountaire has just taken that far beyond what the land can sustain.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to note completion of the cleanup Friday.

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