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Forum: Sussex must do more to protect water quality

Speaker calls for comprehensive health survey in Millsboro area
August 28, 2018

Delaware is No. 2 in the nation for new cancer cases, and a high rate of cancer in the Millsboro area should spark a study of the area. That was the message presented by Dr. Mohammad Akhter, former director of the American Health Association, during an Aug. 8 clean water forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Sussex County in Georgetown.

Akhter, one of the forum's three panelists, said, “We are not sure of the cause, but the 19966 zip code in Millsboro has the highest levels of cancer and heart disease. There has to be some connection. It’s clear there is something going in the ground,” he said.

He urged the Delaware Department of Health to request the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to do a comprehensive survey of residents in the 19966 zip code. He said the request has to come from state officials and not the public.

Residents of that zip code were among the many citizens attending the forum, raising concerns about the impact of large poultry plants on the environment.

Forum speakers also included Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Deputy Director Lisa Borin Ogden and Keith Mensch, Office of Drinking Water program administrator.

A list of action items

Akhter called for appointing a health official at the county level. “There is no health department at the local level. Nobody is watching. The county looks at business and land use but not what’s good for the people. That’s overlooked,” he said. “We are not investing in our most wonderful resource.”

Akhter said the health of residents falls on county government and can't be pushed to state or federal officials. Most of the state's waterways do not meet water-quality standards, and there are at least 6,000 Sussex residential wells in jeopardy.

Akhter offered a long list of priorities:

• Get the governor to appoint a person to coordinate with all agencies on clean-water issues.

• Urge DNREC to immediately stop known polluters until an environmentally safe solution to violations can be found and implemented. Polluters and state government should provide clean drinking water to affected communities in the interim.

• Urge Department of Health and Human Services to request a CDC health survey of communities located in nitrate vulnerable zones to identify health issues.

Akhter also called on elected and appointed officials to take action.

• Local government should pass ordinances to restrict contamination of water and should have robust enforcement to protect public health. County officials should appoint a health official.

• State and county governments and polluters should provide financial assistance for households to fix their water-supply infrastructure.

• Local government, DNREC and the Health Department should provide better monitoring, better enforcement of existing regulations, timely investigation of complaints and prompt and firm action against violators.

• Elected officials should adequately fund all agencies responsible for clean water.

• Local, state and federal governments should consider relocating industries or communities in affected areas of contamination.

 League members urged those attending the forum to take Akhter's suggestions to local, state and federal officials and to push for clean water awareness using social media and letters to local newspapers.

Failure of House Bill 270

Akhter said the failure of HB 270 in the past legislative session, after years of work, was unconscionable.

The bill provided a funding mechanism for assessing needs and a framework for planning and implementing projects to enhance and accelerate efforts to clean up contaminated water resources, provide safe drinking water, reduce flooding and protect jobs in tourism and agriculture.

A task force charged with developing the legislation found it would cost $500 million over the next five years to upgrade and add wastewater and water systems statewide including systems for underserved communities and numerous at-risk systems in Sussex County.

Included in the bill is a clean water surcharge of $45 on business license fees and $40 from each individual personal income tax filed or $80 from joint returns. The estimated $20 million collected annually could be leveraged by another $50 million in other funding.

The bill was tabled in the House Natural Resources Committee. Akhter urged residents to encourage local legislators to revive and pass the legislation during the next session. “Tell your legislators to use common sense to find common ground for the common good,” he said.

See the bill at www.legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail?LegislationId=26158.

Millsboro residents want answers

Residents pushed DNREC's Borin Ogden for answers on permitting, self-monitoring, enforcement issues and fines relating to the Allen Harim Foods and Mountaire poultry plants. She said her comments were limited because of ongoing litigation – Mountaire in Superior Court and Allen Harim before the state environmental appeals board.

She did not respond when asked if large poultry plants were moving from Pennsylvania and Virginia because those states are enforcing regulations while Delaware is not.

Borin Odgen and Mensch both said they would take concerns expressed by Millsboro-area residents back to their leadership.

DNREC is investing in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater projects with grants and loans through the state’s revolving fund, Borin Odgen said.

She provided the following data:

Since 1990, $417 million in grants and low-interest loans has been awarded for wastewater and stormwater projects - $267 million in Sussex County.

$13.9 million in grants and low-interest loans has been awarded for 1,300 projects to eliminate private septic systems, to replace wells and implement agricultural best practices - $8.1 million in Sussex County.

Since 1997, $186 million in drinking water grants and low-interest loans to improve drinking water quality - $66 million in Sussex County.

She said aquatic species are rebounding. Blue crabs have had several very good seasons, black sea bass population is at a high level and large mouth bass are growing in size in the Nanticoke River, she said.

In addition, she said, this year fish consumption advisories were relaxed or lifted.

Bluefish – Consumption has tripled to three meals per year.

Striped bass – increased from three meals to three meals per year

Weakfish – no restrictions

The Office of Drinking Water is charged with enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which includes monitoring of 100 contaminants. The office monitors and samples public water systems; it does not monitor private wells, Mensch said.

Akhter suggested residents get their well water tested at least once a year and preferably every six months. Kits, available from the state Division of Public Health at state service centers, are $4.

He then suggested that people take the results of the test when they see their doctors. “It could impact your treatment,” he said.