Mountaire requests emergency sludge permit

Date Published: 
Feb. 2, 2018

After Mountaire Farms realized that its wastewater treatment system wasn’t doing its job, the company started brainstorming on how to fix the problem. And, on Dec. 12, 2017, they requested that the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) grant them emergency permission to temporarily store sludge in a spare lagoon.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin has not yet given an official response to that request. Meanwhile, the Division of Water’s Surface Water Discharges Section continued with the regular permitting process by hosting a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 23, at Millsboro Town Center.

In August of 2017, an “upset condition” caused the Millsboro poultry processing plant’s wastewater treatment system to fail in its mission, spraying wastewater with elevated levels of nitrogen, fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS) onto local fields. It was the culmination of several years of lesser permit violations.

Most of the daily 2 million gallons of wastewater from the plant come from chicken processing, with perhaps 1 percent from human sanitary uses, such as restrooms.

The treatment plant is supposed to remove fats, breakdown organic waste, lower nitrogen, settle out the solids and disinfect the water. Mountaire then spray-irrigates the treated water on nearby crop fields.

“The wastewater also contains small amounts of solids from chicken processing that are broken down into sludge during the treatment process,” said DNREC’s Brian Churchill. “Over time, sludge accumulates at various parts of the wastewater treatment plant, and it needs to be removed.”

Past removal activities weren’t done effectively, officials said, which contributed to the “upset” in August.

Once the sludge is manually removed, the overall system would operate more efficiency, and Mountaire could perform further maintenance.

The temporary solution (costing up to $10 million) merely paves the way for a $25 million wastewater treatment upgrade, according to Mountaire spokesperson Sean McKeon.

Currently, Mountaire transports several truckloads of sludge away from the plant daily. But that process isn’t fast enough, and the liquid sludge needs to dry before hauling from the lagoon.

So the company is requesting to store the sludge in an old lagoon located near Swan Creek, which has been slightly modified to accommodate the load.

They propose to stuff the wet material into massive porous “dewatering socks.” Just like sticking mud in a standard wool sock, the solids would stay put as the liquid soaks out and drains toward one side of the field. Then, the dried material can be driven away.

Employees would add lime to reduce the odor.

The drying and trucking would continue until the anaerobic lagoon are free of solids. Churchill couldn’t say exactly how much material needs to be removed, and it could be a two-year process. But it should help improve the entire wastewater treatment system.

Since the request amends DNREC’s public notice issued Oct. 18, 2017, all public comments from that time are being carried forward.

After some comments, Mountaire has agreed to monitor the groundwater by adding several test wells to their overall network, including one up-gradient and two down-gradient, as underground water typically flows southeast in that area.

“The wells are put there as a safeguard, to ensure groundwater is not impacted by nitrates beyond background levels,” Churchill said.

Also, since the sludge had previously been believed to be liquid, the new amendment provides for management of dry materials, too.

The people speak

In Millsboro on Jan. 23, many people questioned DNREC’s past monitoring.

Among Mountaire’s 100-plus violations of various sorts, “Not one of them have had one fine to it? That’s disgraceful!” said Joanne Haynes, adding that she is “tired” of the smell, sludge and soil problems.

Under new leadership, DNREC has a chance to freshen its approach to environmental protections, said Lew Podolske. He encouraged DNREC to demand specific data and plans from Mountaire — not just general promises. Swan Creek and the Indian River are nearby, and it’s critical to create environmental safeguards before permit approval, he added.

Donna Skribbe read a letter from Protecting Our Indian River members John Austin and Jay Meyer, stating that it’s obvious that the facility isn’t meeting permit requirements now and asking how Mountaire has proven they’ll abide by future permit requirements.

Several people scolded Mountaire for using historical drawings, rather than surveying the berm elevations on-site.

They also asked about the site’s location in the 100-year floodplain and why the reports showed discrepancies between the soil borings and the executive summary about sand and clay amounts in the ground.

Maria Payan of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project said she also feared that dirty water would seep into groundwater, even with a plastic liner.

“This is on sand. This is grade-school chemistry. When you put something on sand, it goes through,” said Payan. “This is why we have all these problems down here, because there is sand.”

But DNREC staff only mentioned in passing that Mountaire had requested the temporary emergency variance, which seemed to surprise the members of the public present at the meeting. As they shouted questions, DNREC hearing officer Robert Haynes said that request is in the Secretary’s hands.

“We should have been told that,” Payan said. If this is an emergency situation, she said, she wanted to change her comments to demand the Mountaire forget the lagoon storage and just truck everything out of Millsboro immediately.

But Mountaire has made its request, and DNREC will review it, officials said.

An emergency?

Mountaire’s Dec. 12 request for a temporary variance cites the company’s good-faith actions to hire experts, invest millions of dollars in upgrades, fire the personnel who didn’t maintain the system properly, submit regular reports to DNREC and more.

As for the emergency aspect, “The swift and timely construction and operation of the Storage Facility is critical for Mountaire to be able to fully implement the short-term and permanent long-term remedies,” attorney Elio Battista Jr. wrote on Mountaire’s behalf.

The time lost during the traditional public process “would cause severe hardship and delay. … The hearing process will only delay the full implementation of these critical interim corrective measures,” Battista wrote.

Until this summer, Mountaire had been planning to expand the Millsboro processing facility by adding a third production line. They later withdrew the related Coastal Zone Act Permit application. Robert Haynes said the sludge permit does not appear to relate to that previous withdrawn request.

Next Robert Hayes will write a hearing officer’s report for Garvin to review, which includes all aspects of the public comments process, including answers to questions from the public.

The decision will be announced online ( and posted via legal notice in two Delaware daily newspapers.

There is no mandated timeframe for the decision, Churchill said, but he called it an urgent situation that needs fixing.

Questions regarding the application and plans are available for inspection by contacting: Brian Churchill; Surface Water Discharges Section; 89 Kings Hwy.; Dover, DE 19901 or (302) 739-9946.

The Dec. 31 legal notice is online at