Lawyers get involved in Mountaire contamination case

Date Published: 
Dec. 22, 2017

Late Tuesday afternoon, a Delaware law firm sent a message into the world: “If you know anything about the well water contamination in Millsboro, please call.”

Jacobs & Crumplar P.A. is representing an undisclosed number of households in the Millsboro area after Mountaire officials revealed that at their poultry processing plant there, its wastewater treatment system had failed to properly remove nitrogen, fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS), spraying the untreated water across fields and potentially into water sources for the area.

That is a scary premise for nearby residents, some of whom say they want a professional voice on their side when they begin working with big names, including Mountaire and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC), to address contamination of their drinking water.

“Jacobs & Crumplar P.A., who have successfully litigated environmental claims in Delaware, and co-counsel Nidel & Nace, who have broad and unique successful experience in environmental claims, are currently investigating this matter on behalf of their clients and request that anyone with information about this come forward to assist them in obtaining evidence,” the company announced on Dec. 19.

This is just the beginning stages of possible legal action as residents get organized and the lawyers research the matter.

“We represent some residents around the property and, basically, the press release is stating that we’re investigating at this time for our clients and basically calling for people who have knowledge of this event,” said attorney Raeann Warner. “There have been no [court] filings.”

Warner wouldn’t comment on who is paying the attorney fees, or how the Delaware firm came to partner with Nidel & Nace PLLC, which specializes in environmental and toxic injury litigation.

“Jacobs & Crumplar has been involved in occupational and environmental [law] since 1981, so I would say, in a general sense, we have specialized in asbestos and very heavily in sexual abuse claims, and most recently in civil rights,” Warner said.

Jacobs & Crumplar is online at www.jcdelaw.com, and can be reached in Wilmington at (302) 656-5445 and Georgetown at (302) 934-9700.

Mountaire ships drinking water

After Mountaire was cited for high nitrate levels on-site, the State began testing nearby private wells for contamination. As that number increases, Mountaire is now following DNREC’s recommendation of providing bottled water to affected residences.

Mountaire disposes of all wastewater through a spray irrigation system north and south of Route 24 in Millsboro. The facility can spray a monthly average of 2.6 million gallons per day. The wastewater is to be treated onsite, then used to irrigate local farms, so the crops in the fields consume excess nutrients and water then filters naturally into the ground.

But when the effluent pipes somehow bypassed the treatment system — which urgently needs upgrades — the untreated water was sprayed directly onto Sussex County soil, in a region surrounded by privately-owned residential wells, which likely number in the hundreds.

“Mountaire also agreed to provide bottled water and possibly other water treatment to other areas of concern surrounding the plant that have the potential to be impacted by nitrate contamination,” DNREC announced.

Because of historically elevated nitrates from the site’s longtime use as a poultry facility, well water in the area gets higher scrutiny than most.

In early December, 21 wells (of 34 tested) had exceeded the federal drinking water standard of 10mg/L of nitrates. Since then, DNREC officials have refused to say how many more households were tested, or their distance from the plant.

“DNREC and DPH will continue to sample private wells in the area of Mountaire—Millsboro and will update results as they are provided. DNREC continues to engage Mountaire Farms on addressing issues from the company’s wastewater discharge,” spokesperson Michael Globetti said.

The Division of Public Health’s Office of Drinking Water (ODW) was pulled in to test water samples, to aid in DNREC’s investigation.

“The laboratory method used for nitrates also reports levels of fluoride, nitrite, chloride and sulfate. None of these have been elevated in any of the samples,” said Keith Mensch, administrator for the Office of Drinking Water. “We are also conducting bacteriological testing. The results of these tests do not indicate that bacteriological contamination from Mountaire is a concern in the wells tested.”

Nearby, inside Millsboro town limits, the municipality has not seen any elevated nitrate levels during their weekly tests.

“The issue in question has not impacted the Town whatsoever. All of our wells are located to west and south of Indian River and Millsboro Pond,” said Sheldon Hudson, town manager.

In fact, he said the municipality is content not to expand its infrastructure eastward across the Route 24 bridge because of the permitting challenge to cross the water.

Nervous about nitrates

Mountaire had already been providing water or treatment to eight nearby households for the last 14 years, due to high nitrate levels in their wells.

According to the EPA, young infants who consume high nitrate levels in bottle formula can suffer shortness of breath or “blue-baby” syndrome, which disrupts oxygen flow in the blood. Nitrates cannot be removed by boiling water, by mechanical filters or by chemical disinfection, such as chlorination.

“The Division of Public Health recommends using either bottled water, or water that has been treated to remove nitrates, for drinking, cooking, preparation of formula and other consumption. Elevated levels of nitrate are not a concern for bathing, dishwashing and other cleaning activities,” the agency stated.

For drinking water, the two standard methods of nitrate removal are reverse osmosis for a single site (such as one sink) or ion exchange for larger applications (such as a whole house).

Although the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells, DNREC does oversee construction of them, and the Office of Drinking Water can provide support, such as helping DNREC with recent sampling, or being a public resource for information and advice.

Public water systems, such as the one operated by the Town of Millsboro, are tested and treated weekly, but private wells are the owners’ responsibility. The government recommends at least annual testing and inspections.

In general, people can test private wells with kits that can be obtained for $4 from the Thurman Adams State Service Center at 546 S. Bedford Street, Georgetown, or residents can call the Division of Public Health at (302) 856-5241. The kits test for nitrates, bacteria and more.