Mountaire Farms is investing $30 million in a new wastewater treatment center using state-of-the-art technology to treat chicken waste and nutrients. If it's new plant were coupled with public water and central sewer, officials say, it would be a better way forward than launching a protracted legal fight over high nitrate levels in Sussex County drinking water.
Mountaire is at the center of a potential class-action suit by local attorneys and residents concerned with high levels of nitrates in drinking water – levels recorded over the summer following an incident at the Millsboro poultry operation's wastewater treatment facility.
“The class-action lawyers came crashing in looking for an opportunity to take advantage of the situation declaring that it might be a nutrient pandemic, and that's what we face now,” said Mike Parkowski, a land-use attorney representing Mountaire Farms.
Parkowski acknowledges a major breakdown of Mountaire's wastewater treatment center that resulted in untreated solid waste being sprayed on nearby fields. Mike Tirrell, executive vice president of operations for Mountaire, said employees responsible for monitoring the wastewater system were fired; employees with Tidewater are now running the facility's wastewater treatment operation while a new system is developed.
Tirrell said plans for a new $30 million wastewater treatment system have been submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and Mountaire is awaiting comments from DNREC. “It's in their hands now,” said Parkowski, comparing the DNREC approval process to a rubber band with a lot of back and forth.
When completed, the new wastewater treatment system will have cost about a quarter of what a brand new processing plant would cost, Tirrell said.
But this is the price of doing business in Sussex County.
Tirrell said Mountaire is committed to fixing its wastewater treatment facility, and working with neighbors to improve their water. “This is something we own and will make right. We want people to feel OK with this,” he said.
Mountaire continues to deliver drinking water to about 80 homes, and the facility has offered to dig deeper wells for some residents, he said.
While access to deeper wells is one solution to poor water quality in shallow wells, Parkowski said, central water and sewer for Sussex County residents would ultimately remedy the amount of high nitrates in groundwater. “These two things would do more than anything else,” he said.
An abundance of nitrates
But some concerned citizens say the problem is farther spread than properties bordering Mountaire, even including wells near the Sussex County Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“People in Sussex County shouldn't be drinking out of the tap at all,” said John Austin, a Lewes resident and retired Environmental Protection Agency chemist. Austin is part of a group of concerned citizens demanding more state regulation and tighter control on the amount of nitrogen spread on agricultural fields.
Using DNREC water-testing data from across the county, Austin said high levels of nitrates have been recorded near the Sussex County Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, and also wells near a Prime Hook area compost business, and state permitted spray irrigation and land application operations in Harbeson, Ellendale and Milton.
Eight wells neighboring the Sussex Inland Bay Regional Wastewater Treatment Center recorded nitrate levels between 11 and 18 milligrams per liter, he said, above the permited level for drinking water which is 10 mg/l. Milligrams per liter is the same as parts per million.
In Milton, Austin said, a cluster of wells near the Clean Delaware company that has permits to dispose of wastewater and solids and neighboring fields has recorded nitrate levels up to 33 mg/l. Near Blessings Compost and Isdell Sanitation near Prime Hook, he said, five wells measured nitrates between 15 and 73 mg/l.
Austin said high levels of nitrates have adverse effects on unborn and young children and may result in miscarriage. Blue baby syndrome deprives an unborn child of oxygen in the womb; infants lack the ability to process nitrates until about six months of age. Austin also said he questions whether nitrates are to blame for a spike in heart conditions in young patients. For the elderly, Austin said, studies link elevated nitrates to gout, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Austin said expanding a county-run wastewater treatment would beneficial and so would public water. But in lieu of a public water system, he said, reverse-osmosis filtration systems remove nitrates from drinking water.
Austin is scheduled to speak about nitrates during a public forum 6-9 p.m. Friday, March 2, at the Indian River Senior Center, 214 Irons Ave., Millsboro. Austin will join a panel of water experts during the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project event, which seeks to establish environmental justice for low-income and vulnerable communities living with high nitrates.
Sussex County nitrates
High nitrate levels in groundwater predate Mountaire's poultry operation on Route 24. In a study of nitrate concentrations from 1976 and 1977, a geographic study noted concentrations of up to 60 parts per million for properties near what was then the Townsend poultry facility – a level six times higher than the government's allowable amount if the readings were in nitrates. If the readings were for nitrogen, converted nitrate levels would still exceed the allowable 10 mg/l.
Parkowski said the report was completed years before spray irrigation and solid waste land application became regular means for disposing waste in Sussex County.
“The primary causes were poultry houses,” said Parkowski.
Parkowski, who has decades of land-use experience in Kent and Sussex counties, said he remembers farmers would spread chicken manure on their fields collected from nearby poultry operations.
Crops, such as corn, were planted – and still are planted – to absorb nitrogen in the soil, and reduce nitrates leeching into groundwater.
Blades water contamination
On Feb. 22, residents of Blades were given the OK to flush their systems and begin using public water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth. Residents had been without water since Feb. 9 when officials found perflourinated compounds in drinking water. A carbon filter was installed, but officials say residents should flush out their faucets, water heaters and toilets to make sure no contaminated water remains.Test results of PFC in Blades’ water have showed 3.4 parts per trillion compared to the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per million, said Michael Globetti, DNREC spokesman.
“The town’s water will be safe for drinking and cooking upon completion of residents’ flushing of their homewater systems,” he said.
DNREC and Divison of Public Health officials met with residents March 1 to answer questions on the town’s drinking water and private well water in the area. Officials have tested 41 wells and three have shown elevated levels of PFCs, Globetti said. A fourth well was near the health advisory level of 70 parts per million. Globetti said homeowners with PFC levels above or near the allowed amount will be provided home filtration systems.