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Mountaire Farms addresses Millsboro-area water woes

Katie Peikes
Delaware Public Media
Resident Keith Steck speaks at a public hearing between Mountaire and nearby residents.

Mountaire Farms met with Millsboro-area residents Wednesday night to start a public dialogue about frustrations regarding elevated nitrate levels in residential wells.

The company said it understands residents’ worries, but it doesn’t believe wastewater treatment problems at its Millsboro facility are to blame for high nitrates that contaminated residents’ drinking water, said Mountaire Farms’ Executive Vice President of Processing Operations Mike Tirrell.

“Science says the upset that we experienced at Mountaire did not contribute to the high nitrate levels of the local residential wells,” he told Delaware Public Media.

Mountaire brought experts to the meeting who said Sussex County has historically high levels of nitrates.

Mark Eisner, a licensed professional geologist in Delaware, said groundwater moves north to south. The majority of affected properties, including homes north of the Indian River, east of Millsboro and south of Route-24 are not downgradient of Mountaire’s spray fields and could not be affected by groundwater movement from those fields, he said.

“It’s really slow,” said Eisner, on the groundwater’s movement. “And this is to be expected, which means that even if  – and there’s no databases to think that groundwater from this upset was headed in the directions of these homes – it would take years and years and years to get there at all.”

Tirrell says Mountaire wants to be a good neighbor and is again offering to drill deeper wells for residents. Millsboro resident Jeff Davis says he won’t take Mountaire up on its offer.

“If they drill it, are they going to check it every month to make sure the iron, the nitrates are fine? That’s my biggest concern,” Davis said.

The company says more than 10 other residents have talked with them about deeper wells.

Many residents and local environmentalists who made public comments at the meeting lashed out at Mountaire, their elected officials and Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. 

They criticized the way things were handled by the state and Mountaire, asking why communication didn’t start sooner.

“You’re my neighbor. You’re a respectable business. Why?...Why didn’t you stop by? Why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you put a paper at my door? Why?” Millsboro resident Monica Johnson asked.

Maria Payan, a consultant with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, spoke on behalf of many residents who wonder if health problems they’ve developed such as asthma, or miscarriages, are connected to elevated nitrates in their drinking water.

“This is a minority community, it’s a low income community, these are people that are overburdened with pollution, they have no political power, no political voice,” Payan said. “We intend on changing that.”

Some residents also criticized DNREC for not issuing a fine along with the notice of violation from November. DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin told Delaware Public Media a longterm ongoing investigation will yield whether or not a fine is necessary.

“We are still involved in that process and can’t really say much more about that, but it is an ongoing investigation,” Garvin said.

Mountaire says it’s in the process of a two-phase plan to fix problems with its wastewater. The first phase involves removing solids from the treatment system that built up and caused the upset. They’re also adding oxygen to the water and are testing it more frequently.

Those immediate fixes cost about $10 million, Tirrell said.

The second phase, which Mountaire anticipates will take 18 months to two years, involves a complete redesign of their wastewater treatment plant, which will cost about $25 million. Mountaire has started the engineering process for the upgrades, Tirrell said.

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