A new lawsuit against Mountaire Farms has been filed, seeking compensation for nearly 80 neighbors in connection with the poultry plant's failed wastewater treatment system in 2017 and contamination in years earlier. The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court by Wilmington law firm Jacobs & Crumplar and Washington, D.C.-based Nidel & Nace, states that Mountaire has exceeded its permitted amount of waste and polluted area waterways, which has affected the property and health of neighbors – including wrongful death.
Damages to neighbors are the direct result of negligence by Mountaire to properly dispose of waste generated by the Route 24 chicken processing plant, the lawsuit states.
A state permit renewed in 2017 allows Mountaire to dispose of 2.6 million gallons of wastewater a day and limited nitrogen in the spray irrigation to a total of 320 pounds of nitrogen a year applied to fields. The lawsuit states the plant exceeded the 320-pound limit in 2015 on 11 of the plant's 13 spray-irrigation fields and exceeded the limits again in 2017.
“In August 2017, Mountaire had already exceeded its permitted total amount of nitrogen for the year on nine of its 13 fields. On six of those fields, Mountaire had disposed of over 320 pounds/acre – its annual limit – in August alone,” the suit reads.
Mountaire officials have acknowledged high levels of nitrogen released onto fields in August 2017, in what they call an upset. Company officials said several employees were fired, and officials notified the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control when the upset was discovered.
The lawsuit includes a chart detailing elevated levels of nitrates in the plant's treated wastewater for 2017. Levels were nearly 50 times the federally accepted amount of 10 mg/l for nitrates in drinking water. During that time, fecal coliform levels also exceeded federal standards.
“In 2017, Mountaire violated this standard nine times, with daily average fecal coliform concentrations reaching as high as 1.1 million mg/l, or 5,500 times the permissible concentration,” the lawsuit states.
Years of wastewater contamination has taken a toll on the health of residents living near the plant, the lawsuit states. Elevated nitrate levels have been linked to congenital malformations, thyroid malfunction, gastrointestinal malfunction and cardiac effects, the suit states.
The lawsuit is asking for medical compensation for neighbors who have been exposed to high levels of nitrates in their drinking water, and from air particles released by the processing plant.
Under wrongful death, resident Gina Burton seeks damages in connection with the death of her son, Kiwanis. “Kiwanis Burton died after suffering a severe asthma attack while at home and being subjected to odors and air pollution,” the suit states.
Plaintiffs also state that foul and offensive odors have impacted their ability to enjoy their property and the outdoors. They say their property values have decreased, which the lawsuit seeks compensation for in a judgment.
Mountaire said it is aware of the lawsuit and would give little comment. “It was not unexpected and we will vigorously defend our position,” the company said in an email.
The company said that Mountaire is committed to staying in Delaware, and spending $60 million in upgrades including a new wastewater treament plant.
“What we can say is it appears that the tactics by these plaintiffs groups is to grossly exaggerate the contributions from Mountaire regarding nitrate levels across Sussex County,” the company said. “Historically, elevated levels of nitrates is a very common widespread environmental condition due to decades of agricultural use, way before the arrival of Mountaire and certainly did not occur just in the past 18 years, much less the past eight months.”