Mountaire denies responsibility for nitrates in well water

Company may pay for deeper wells to be dug

Date Published: 
Jan. 25, 2018

Mountaire Farms representatives told concerned residents who filled the Indian River Senior Center on Wednesday, Jan. 17, that the company is not responsible for high levels of nitrates in wells next to areas where Mountaire has sprayed wastewater from its Millsboro facilities.

However, at the end of the two-hour meeting, the company told the residents that they would like to meet with any of them who are interested in having the company drill deeper water wells for their homes.

State Sen. Gerald R. Hocker told the crowd that, although the company may be at fault for letting a malfunctioning wastewater treatment system pump out water that was high in nitrates and coliform bacteria, he feels that the company’s word that they will make the situation right can be trusted.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Hocker said. “Good guys did wrong, but they learned, and they want to do whatever it takes to turn this situation around and be a good neighbor to everyone,” he said.

“Nitrates in this area have always been high,” Hocker emphasized, echoing a theme that would be repeated by Mountaire officials, state officials and experts hired by the poultry company to discuss the “upset” in wastewater treatment discovered at the Millsboro Mountaire facility last fall.

“There has been a lot of hysteria” following the discovery of the high levels of pollutants in the wastewater, state Rep. Rich Collins said. “I think some good will come out this, eventually,” he added.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said the levels of certain substances are monitored monthly by the State, and that since the overages had been discovered, bottled water had been provided to residents surrounding the areas where wastewater had been sprayed on fields.

He said the fecal coliform issue was “dealt with immediately” and that addressing the nitrate issue is more of a “long-term” process. The initial “upset” in the wastewater treatment system was caused by a buildup of solids in the system, according to Mountaire Farms Vice President Mike Tirrell.

Liquid oxygen was added to the system immediately, Tirrell said, to start cleaning out the system. He said the first phase of the fix carried a price tag of $10 million for the company, while the second phase, which is a planned redesign of the wastewater treatment plant, will cost $25 million, including construction of temporary holding ponds, which is currently awaiting permitting at the state level.

Mark Eisner, a geologist and president of Advanced Land & Water Inc. of Eldersburg, Md., told the crowd that nitrates in the area have been “under-studied.” He said septic systems are a major contributor to nitrates in groundwater and that Millsboro was identified as a “hot spot” for nitrates 40 years ago.

“You’d probably have to go back to pre-colonial forest times to find a time when nitrates weren’t elevated” in the area, Eisner said.

“There is no reason to believe the ‘upset’ has affected groundwater in area homes,” he told the room full of residents.

Residents, however, remained skeptical. Some berated the company and the state officials for letting the “upset” occur. Some blamed pollutants in their water for health problems ranging from asthma — such as Gina Burton of Millsboro, who blamed the water for her son’s fatal asthma attack three years ago — to seizures and miscarriages.

Barry Rogers, whose family has lived on land near the spray-irrigation fields for generations, became upset as he asked the panel, “Why haven’t you been here for us ’til now?”

Mike Shannon of Millsboro said, “It’s very insulting [for officials] to suggest that, because Sussex County is primarily agricultural, we must accept unhealthy conditions in our groundwater.”

“It is the responsibility of our elected officials,” Shannon said, “to ensure that not only do we foster the economy, but also that the living conditions of the people of the state are healthy.”

“We are listening,” Tirrell said. “I know there are situations out there that are not very good,” he acknowledged. “You have Mountaire’s complete commitment to fix this issue.”

Tirrell suggested that anyone near the spray-irrigation area who has concerns that their water could be contaminated should contact the company to discuss having them drill a deeper well at Mountaire’s expense. Tirrell said anyone wishing to talk to company representatives about that should call (302) 934-3461.