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Middletown wastewater operation returns clean water to ground, benefits local farmers

Milton-area residents are concerned about potential groundwater contamination from a plan to dispose poultry giant Allen Harim’s treated wastewater onto agricultural land in their area.

Artesian Resources Corporation, which is building a wastewater storage and recycling facility to work with Allen Harim, says it already operates and maintains a successful wastewater treatment facility in Middletown.

They’re modeling their Milton-area facility after it.

Three big lagoons that treat and store wastewater sit at Middletown’s wastewater treatment facility. At first glance on an October afternoon, it looks like a wildlife refuge. Artesian’s Manager of Wastewater Services Mark Kondelis points to several birds in the distance sitting peacefully by the lagoons.

“You got geese and duck. You can see into the water clearly, see the stones going down, and this is what we are using to spray it on the fields,” Kondelis said.

Artesian treats an average of 1.25 million gallons of wastewater daily at the Middletown plant. They monitor bacteria levels daily. They test for possible contaminants like nitrogen once a month and ammonia twice a month.

"We're environmentally sensitive to anything that contaminates the water quality." -Rodney Wyatt, Artesian Resources

Wastewater comes in to a 75 milligon gallon treatment lagoon.  It spends about 30 days there, where treatment removes and reduces nutrients. 

Then it goes into a storage lagoon and stays there for about 60 days, where nature continues to remove excess nutrients and prevent the growth of algae. Artesian then takes the water to a filter building where they clean it up and pull a sample to test it. 

“That’s our effluent. Go to a tap — you can’t tell a difference. Smell it. No smell? Maybe a little bit of chlorine,” Kondelis said.

They store the filtered water in a third lagoon. 

Artesian considers the treatment facility a success story. They’ve been operating it in Middletown since 2002 and Artesian’s Director of Operational Compliance Rodney Wyatt says the company feels it has proven itself.

“People have complained and said there was going to be odor, we were going to contaminate wells,” Wyatt said. “We’re a water company, I mean groundwater is a commodity for us and we’re environmentally sensitive to anything that contaminates the water quality.”

The water sits for two months at most in the last lagoon. Then Artesian takes it to a nearby golf course, fields near schools, and farmland.  

There, it goes through the final step in the water cycle where several winged structures spray the water onto crops and parkland. The water travels through the ground and mixes with existing groundwater. 

Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Center pivots — the structures that spray treated wastewater onto fields.

To make sure the groundwater isn’t contaminated, Artesian has wells that monitor the water before and after it is sprayed. “So we compare the two results and ideally they’re the same,” Wyatt said. “So the crop is uptaking all the nitrogen and phosphorous and using it to grow and the groundwater stays the same.”  

If water sprayed onto the land isn’t treated properly, there is a downside. Over at Mountaire Farms in Millsboro, water sprayed on nearby land that wound up in residential wells had high levels of nitrogen and bacteria. Now, some homes have tap water that is unsafe to drink.

But in Middletown, Artesian says they haven’t had any issues with groundwater contamination.

How Local Farmers Benefit 

Middletown farmers like Dennis Clay is one of a couple of farmers who use Artesian’s treated wastewater on an as-needed basis  in summer to help grow his corn crops and soybeans. He calls it a partnership that benefits all. 

“They need to get rid of the water and they have gone to great lengths to treat this water for us and to make it a quality that was usable for us,” Clay said. “There are no heavy metals. They clean it up. There’s virtually no smell to it.”

It saves him money he would be spending to pump water from the ground himself. 

Middletown farmer Dennis Clay: "We don't want anything that's going to be harmful to any of us."

Clay said he was worried when he started using the treated wastewater on his crops six years ago. Could heavy metal from some of Middletown’s bigger companies — like Amazon and Johnson Controls — end up in his drinking water?

He says he and his family have tested their wells and soil and they haven’t noticed anything harmful.

“We live here, we work here. Our families live here. We don’t want anything that’s going to be harmful to any of us. I’ve got children and grandchildren and I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna hurt anyone,” Clay said.

He continued, “We feel safe and secure that Artesian is doing a good job.”

Artesian says they hope they can also build trust among Milton-area residents who live near their planned facility -- and fields that will store and send Allen Harim’s treated wastewater back into the ground.

And down the road, they could even work with Milton farmers interested in using treated wastewater to fuel their crops.

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