During a town hall meeting in Millsboro Tuesday night, residents criticized a permit application from a chicken plant accused of polluting groundwater. They said they’re fed up and upset it’s taking so long to force the plant to fix the problem.
Mountaire Farms is requesting a permit to build a new wastewater management facility, several months after being accused of polluting groundwater, causing water from wells in the area to become unsafe to drink.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control listened to public comment on the application from dozens of angry residents.
“Mountaire, to me is no neighbor, no good neighbor,” said Joanne Haynes.
“They have failed the people. We have to worry about us, because Mountaire is not worrying about us. I don’t want to smell it anymore. We don’t need it. And the soil and the sludge, I’m just tired of it all. Get it under control.”
Last year, Millsboro residents were cautioned about drinking water from their wells due to concerning levels of nitrate and fecal coliform in the groundwater, possibly connected to the Mountaire.
Water samples showed nitrate levels above the national drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter, and DNREC cited the plant for wastewater violations. Mountaire later provided bottled water to the affected residences.
DNREC said the company has reduced bacteria in the water, but nitrogen levels are still not meeting acceptable standards.
“It hasn’t been in compliance since it’s been there, and I’m fed up with the stench,” Haynes said.
“There was one summer [when] there was not one barnacle on the water on our pier. We see dead fish, and the smell is so bad. Why do I have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and smell — and this smell — you can’t explain it. You open the door, you want to go out and I holler back in to my husband, ‘It stinks!’”
Mountaire’s permit application requests to build a storage facility that could temporarily hold wastewater solids, and clean out built up “sludge” from its two existing lagoons.
DNREC said it doesn’t know when it will make a decision on the permit, but it will consider public comment as part of the process.
However, residents such as Maria Payan of the nonprofit Socially Responsible Agricultural Project say issues have been going on for years without resolve. She said residents no longer trust the plant, nor do they trust that DNREC will hold them accountable.
“DNREC is asleep at the wheel. These people call constantly and complain and it doesn’t go anywhere. And now we have all kinds of problems going on,” Payan said.
“I hope there will be enforcement. Monitoring wells are great, regulations are great, but regulations without enforcement aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. And unfortunately, this is what this community has seen over and over again. The citizens are demanding these agencies do the job they’re paid to do, and that’s protect the environment and protect public health.”
Lew Podolske said he’s concerned about the quality of the waters in Delaware, especially the Inland Bays and the Indian River.
“We’re concerned they’re going to go ahead and issue a permit and allow Mountaire to go ahead with this use of this lagoon when they haven’t done proper testing and preparation so it’s safe to do so,” he said. “We’re asking they not issue the permit until all appropriate steps have been taken to safeguard there won’t be runoff into the waters of the Delaware bays.”
In a statement, the company said it is dedicated to correcting the problems with its system, and the purpose of the permit is to do just that.
“Mountaire Farms has had an excellent relationship with our neighbors in Millsboro for close to two decades and has been an integral community partner since we purchased the facility from another company in 2000,” a spokesman said in an email statement.
“Mountaire has hired one of the top poultry wastewater design engineers in the country, who is designing a state-of-the-art system, which will be one of the largest and most effective systems in the State of Delaware. The new system will be far superior to the old one. The permit will allow an expedited process for dealing with the current wastewater upset, and allow the new system to come on line sooner. Our engineers and experts are satisfied that the design features of the temporary sludge storage facility are fully protective of both human health and the environment.”
Mountaire maintains there’s no connection between the wastewater issue and the elevated levels of nitrate in the water. However, the company contends it took immediate action by reaching out to nearby residents and supplying bottled water. The company said it also offered deep wells to those affected.
“We did this for two reasons; first, because DNREC asked us to supply water as a ‘precautionary’ measure, and to do so immediately. Second, and more importantly, because of our longstanding and close relationship with the community we felt it was the right thing to do,” a spokesman said in an email statement.
Mountaire said it has implemented a two-phase plan for addressing the waste water issue short-term and long-term. The total plan will cost more than $35 million dollars.