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As Mountaire works to fix wastewater problems, polluted water plagues Millsboro residents

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Courtesy of Mountaire Farms
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Mountaire Farms is working to fix issues with its Millsboro plant that caused contamination in nearby wells.

Run the water in Martha Wise’s Millsboro home west of Mountaire’s plant, and you won’t see anything wrong.

But her well was found to have high nitrates and bacteria, making her water unsafe to drink.

“They said they’re planning to fix it. How long will it take to fix it? How long are we going to deal with this water situation?” Wise said.

Mountaire recently gave her a water cooler with a couple of refills. The Herbert Lane resident is using it for cooking and drinking. 

Now, Wise and her family, including her son Preston, worry about how the nitrates could affect their health in the future and their property values.

"Mom said this property was well blessed: Lovely deer and wildlife. Who’d want to buy it if we ever decided we’d want to sell it? " Preston Wise said.

The state tested 16 wells and 14 came back with high nitrates according to The News Journal. Martha Wise’s well is one of them. Preston's is another.

The News Journal also reports an additional 40 wells are possibly contaminated, but have not been tested yet.

Mountaire has been meeting with residents and environmental officials to work on a solution, ever since the incident. Mountaire spokesman Sean McKeon says the company fired wastewater employees after problems with the treatment system were discovered.

“We take seriously our obligation to be careful stewards of the land and the water that we all share,” McKeon said.

State health and environmental officials have been sampling wells near Mountaire and are working with the poultry producer and affected homes.

Jamie Mack, the Policy Lead with the Division of Public Health, said nitrates are a bigger concern for women and babies, and can lower the levels of oxygen in the blood.

“Over prolonged exposure to very, very high concentrations, we expect to see some blueish tints to the lips and fingernails and essentially a lack of oxygen,” Mack said.

Mack said high levels of nitrates can lead to higher mortality, but the state “is not in a situation where we’d expect to see anything like that at this point.”

“The concentrations that we’re seeing, while they’re above our maximum contaminant limit with the EPA, they’re not an immediate concern,” Mack said.

That information is alarming environmentalists, like Maria Payan with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. She says she worries health officials haven’t told the whole truth on the harm nitrates can cause and who they affect. The national drinking water standard for nitrates is 10 mg/L.

“This should not be minimized. The health impacts go way beyond pregnant women like they're putting out,” Payan said.

Mountaire is continuing to address problems caused by its wastewater treatment. They’re also upgrading the system. McKeon says the company is committed to going above and beyond so the problem doesn’t happen again.

Fixes to the current wastewater system, which is phase I of Mountaire’s efforts to correct the issue, as well as future upgrades (phase II), will cost $30-$35 million combined, McKeon said.

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