State officials say Mountaire Farms' Millsboro plant has been polluting groundwater and failing to comply with its state permit to dispose of wastewater on nearby farm fields.
Health risks because of the pollution require Mountaire to provide its immediate neighbors with bottled water or drinking water treatment. To date, state officials have imposed no fines.
Neighbors say they have not received bottled water or additional water treatment since it was required by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent order in 2003.
On Nov. 2, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issued a notice of violation to the poultry-processing plant after inspections found excess nitrate contamination in groundwater and monitoring wells. Bacteria found in the sprayed wastewater in August was measured at more than 5,000 times the permitted level.
Overexposure to nitrates can result in a blood disorder with symptoms including decreased blood pressure, increased heart rate, headaches, abdominal cramps, vomiting and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria found in sprayed wastewater is fecal coliform, which can cause gastrointestinal problems in humans.
DNREC said samples taken Oct. 3 found acceptable fecal coliform limits in the water, and levels continue to be in compliance as of early November. A sample taken Aug. 31, however, found fecal coliform exceeded 1 million colonies per 100 milliliters.
Biological oxygen demand limits were violated on 29 separate days between April 2015 and October 2017. The permit limit is 50 milligrams per liter; the most extreme violation was recorded Sept. 22 at 1,210 milligrams per liter.
Total suspended solids limits were violated 24 times between May 2016 and October 2017. The permit limit is 50 milligrams per liter; the most extreme violation was recorded Sept. 26 at 4,220 milligrams per liter.
Fecal coliform limits were violated nine times between April 2017 and late September 2017. The permit limit is 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water; the most extreme violation was recorded Aug. 31 at 1.1 million colonies.
Total chlorine residual limits were violated 16 times in September 2017. The permit limit is 1-4 milligrams per liter; all violations were below that range, with the lowest recorded Sept. 6 at 0.03 milligrams per liter.
Total nitrogen limits were violated 30 times in 2017. The permit limit is 15.6 milligrams per liter; the most extreme violation was recorded Sept. 26 at 641 milligrams per liter.
The cumulative effect of the nitrogen-related violations has led Mountaire to exceed its annual allowance of 320 pounds per year on all but two of 13 spray fields used to dispose of wastewater from the poultry plant. One field has accumulated more than 1,000 pounds of nitrogen so far this year.
Sean McKeon, director of communications and community relations at Mountaire, said the violations occurred when several employees responsible for operating the wastewater system “did not do their jobs properly.”
He said when wastewater violations were found during routine inspections this year, those employees were fired.
“Since that time, we've been working very closely with DNREC about the system upset,” he said.
He said Mountaire plans to spend $35 million to correct the problems.
McKeon said a corrective action plan has been implemented to add oxygen to the system, remove more biosolids, improve water analysis and replace and improve staffing.
He said Mountaire will completely redesign its wastewater treatment system.
“We're going to do whatever it takes to fix it,” he said. “We have a very, very strong commitment to this community, and we will allocate all the necessary resources to completely correct and upgrade this system in the short and longterm.”
State environmental officials identified problems with Mountaire's spray-applied wastewater in fall 2010, when it was discovered groundwater and wells contained more than twice the permitted concentration of nitrates. Mountaire is permitted to spray up to 2.6 million gallons of treated wastewater daily on more than 900 acres of farm fields.
Mountaire upgraded equipment at its onsite wastewater treatment facility, and the plant complied with permit requirements from 2012 to 2015.
But problems arose again in 2015. Mountaire failed to report it was spraying water with too much nitrogen for two years, the notice states.
Mountaire's improper operation of its wastewater treatment facility and spray-irrigation system has led to nitrate and nitrogen contamination of groundwater, exceeding safe drinking water standards. The drinking water standard is 10 milligrams per liter. Data show levels in 2016 reached concentrations of 92.5 milligrams per liter, and in 2017, levels reached 65.8 milligrams per liter.
DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said he understands Mountaire is back in compliance.
“At this point, it's not determined that what was happening warrants discontinuation of operations,” he said. “I don't want anybody to be mistaken that when we issued the NOV that was the first time we were engaged in the issue.”
Garvin said he wouldn't consider that Mountaire has gotten away with failing to report noncompliance for two years.
“We're still looking into that issue both with the company and internally,” he said. “I know that we often wish the process would move faster. We want to make sure we get it right and can defend whatever we decide.”
He said the department also distributed flyers to nearby residents offering to test their drinking water supplies.
In spring 2017, when a state inspection found the nitrate violations, Mountaire was given 90 days to identify the cause of the pollution, propose remedial action and come back into compliance. Officials reported total nitrogen concentrations in the effluent as high as 76.75 milligrams per liter – nearly five times the permitted level of 15.6 milligrams per liter.
To date, Mountaire has provided no corrective action plan, the notice states.
Additional violations include Mountaire's failure to properly monitor and report complete data on its wastewater discharges, improper operations of its wastewater treatment processes and application of biosolids to fields without approval.
Patsy Taylor, one of several residents on Herbert Lane, a dirt road adjacent to a portion of Mountaire's spray fields, said Mountaire provided her and her neighbors with a water softener system following the 2003 consent order.
Worrying the softener wasn't doing any good, Taylor had her well tested by the Department of Health and Social Services in late September.
Results revealed nitrate levels at 25.4 milligrams per liter – more than twice the safe drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter.
On Sept. 26, four days after Taylor had her wells tested, total nitrogen concentrations in Mountaire's sprayed wastewater were found as high as 641 milligrams per liter – 41 times the permitted level.
Her neighbor and cousin Preston Wise said, since the violation notice was issued, they have not been given any bottled water or additional treatment. About a month ago a Mountaire official stopped by and told him they plan to fix the pothole-ridden dirt road, but did not mention possible problems with drinking water.
“It's proven the water has high nitrates in it,” he said. “What else could be in the water? What else aren't they telling us?”
Concerned neighbors should contact the state Office of Drinking Water at 302-741-8630.
“I'm sorry it happened, and it shouldn't have happened,” said state Sen. Gerald Hocker, who represents the area. “DNREC let us down to let it go on so long without letting us know about it.”
Hocker said all the agencies need to work together to get the problems corrected as quickly as possible.
“They need to correct this and get back to full production because Mountaire hires an awful lot of people in this state, and Sussex County needs as many jobs as possible,” he said.
State Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said shutting down the plant would impact thousands of employees as well as farmers throughout the county.
“There's no question that something should have been done long ago,” he said, admitting he had not yet reviewed the violation notice. “The longer the problem goes on, the harder it is to clean it up. What's the point of having monitoring wells if you're not going to monitor them and take action when you should?”
The violation notice requires Mountaire to fix the problems, monitor wastewater on a daily basis, increase groundwater sampling, and sample surface water monthly.
DNREC acknowledges the plant is spraying polluted effluent, but it also states in the notice that if the company continues spraying, it must refrain from spraying during windy times and rain events, and add a 150-foot buffer.
Mountaire has until Dec. 1 to submit a plan to the state outlining correction actions and timelines for fixing the problems. The company has until Nov. 30 to submit land-application documents it previously failed to provide.
Groundwater pollution dates back to the 1990s
This is not the first time Mountaire has been required to provide neighbors on Herbert Lane respite from polluted drinking water.
In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in after high levels of nitrates – most above the safe drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter – were found in groundwater and drinking water wells near the plant. EPA issued a consent decree forcing Mountaire to immediately provide an emergency drinking water supply to affected neighbors.
The state Department of Health and Social Services told the EPA, according to the consent order, it did not have the authority to order an alternate water supply to replace those private, contaminated wells.
At that time, the EPA found enough contaminants that the groundwater pollution could “present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons drinking water from the public and private residential water supply wells contaminated by activities at the facility.”
Mountaire also was required to begin a groundwater monitoring and remediation program to ensure annual average nitrate levels on any spray fields remained below the drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter.
That requirement was relaxed by DNREC in 2010, allowing for nitrogen concentrations of 15.6 milligrams per liter.
Even before Mountaire owned the plant, nitrates were a problem. In 1991, when the site was owned by Townsend Inc., excess nitrates were found in an onsite well, prompting state health officials to require a new, deeper well to be drilled, the EPA notes in its consent order.
Across Route 24 from the existing plant remains a brownfield site, which was once used by the Townsend Processing Plant as a dump site. Cleanup at that site began in 1988 and by 2004, state officials declared no further action was necessary.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information and comments from a Mountaire spokesman.