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Sussex chicken plant faces possible lawsuit

Courtesy of Mountaire Farms

Dozens of Millsboro-area residents are accusing Mountaire Farms of endangering their health through the poultry producer’s nearby wastewater treatment site, and are planning to sue alongside a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.

Lawyers alongside Millsboro-area residents who live up to a half a mile away from where Mountaire sprays its wastewater, say well tests from the last 16 years have shown nitrate contamination. Nitrates over 10 milligrams per liter are associated with miscarriages and cancer.

During a Wednesday morning press call, Tom Crumplar, a Delaware lawyer representing the residents, said his clients “don’t simply want compensation.”

“They wanted to make certain that the injuries that they had suffered - and they’re quite significant - would not happen again and nobody else would have these problems,” Crumplar said. “And they really asked us, ‘what can we do about preventing the further pollution?’”

Residents, lawyers and nonprofit Food & Water Watch sent a letter to Mountaire on Tuesday expressing their intent to sue. About 50 residents are listed on the notice, but Crumplar said his firm, Jacobs & Crumplar, as well as D.C.-based firm Nidel & Nace have over 80 clients and “are getting more every day.”

Mountaire has been providing residents with bottled water as ordered by the state, since they were cited for polluting groundwater in 2017. Some residents say Mountaire supplied them with water softener systems or bottled water more than a decade ago.

Resident Gina Burton and her family have lived in the community for generations. Burton said the issue with Mountaire and drinking water contamination has been going on since the company moved to the area in 2002.

“We have to go through the course of our day thinking Mountaire gave us enough water to conduct our everyday lives as far as washing our clothes, bathing, washing dishes, using it to drink, but the amount of water that they give us every week is not enough to use for everyday use,” Burton said.

She continued, “I don’t know the reason why my family has suffered so many health problems, but living with this every day for all these years makes me wonder why.”

Mountaire told Delaware Public Media in January the corrective actions it is taking include immediate fixes to its wastewater treatment plant, which cost $10 million, and designing the treatment plant entirely, which will cost about $25 million.

Chris Nidel, an attorney from D.C.-based Nidel & Nace who is also representing the plaintiffs, said those treatment upgrades may not be enough to satisfy residents who have been plagued by contaminated water for years.

“The best case scenario is that they will reduce the continued load of nitrates into the groundwater” Nidel said.

Mountaire met with residents in January, claiming they believe the groundwater was already contaminated before they moved to Millsboro and they don’t believe their wastewater problems contaminated nearby residents’ drinking water because of the way and speed groundwater  moves.

Nidel said the problem is it will take years for contaminated groundwater to work its way through the system, and it will continue to reach residents’ drinking water.

“It’s not just about identifying or addressing the root levels of nitrates in their sludge and in their liquid waste that gets sprayed on these fields,” Nidel said. “It also has to deal with addressing the significant load of nitrates that are in the groundwater beneath these fields as it currently stands,”

According to the letter of intent to sue, Mountaire has 90 days to address its wastewater problems and respond to residents’ concerns, or the plaintiffs will see them in Delaware’s federal district court. The notice was filed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which addresses how to manage solid waste.

Delaware Public Media reached out to Mountaire’s lawyer, Michael Parkowski, but did not get a response by the time of publication.

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