By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times
Heather Swartley has been drinking bottled water for almost a year after being told that her private well was contaminated with pollutants from the nearby Mountaire Farms chicken plant outside of Millsboro in Sussex County.
The regular deliveries, paid for by the company, give her a clean source of water for drinking, cooking and washing dishes, and allow her to use her well water just for showering and doing laundry.
But she’s getting tired of waiting for a permanent solution to the contamination of some private wells with high levels of nitrates, fecal coliform, and other pollutants that have triggered two class-action lawsuits by hundreds of plaintiffs and enforcement actions by state officials.
“It needs to get straightened out,” she told Delaware Business Times. “They are taking forever to fix it. They need to fix it.”
Swartley, 29, a certified nursing assistant with three children, lives on Jersey Road, Millsboro, about a mile and a half from the Mountaire plant, and where many residents have tainted well water.
“I see almost every single house with the water jugs outside on water days,” she said.
Swartley, who is not a plaintiff in either of the lawsuits, said she knew nothing about the contamination until she learned about it through the media. She was then approached by company representatives who said they would arrange for deliveries of bottled water. Every month, she gets 12 jugs like those used for water coolers in doctor’s offices.
Even though she now has clean, free drinking water, and has not suffered any health effects of high nitrate levels, Swartley is still worried about what she might have consumed before she discovered her well was contaminated.
“I was scared,” she said, standing in her driveway. “Our water is contaminated and we were drinking it.” She has stopped fishing in the Indian River across the street from her house because she is worried about what the fish there might contain.
The lawsuits, filed in June on behalf of about 780 plaintiffs, say Mountaire has been polluting local groundwater by spreading waste containing high levels of nitrates and other contaminants on nearby fields.
The company, which slaughters and processes some 2 million chickens a week, generates waste water and sludge containing feathers, blood, carcass parts, fecal matter and other contaminants, and spreads it on more than 900 acres of crop lands using spray irrigation, according to one of the suits, representing “at least 695” plaintiffs living within five miles of the chicken plant.
The waste contains nitrates, which increase the risk of illnesses including bladder cancer, Type 1 diabetes, high blood pressure, and so-called blue baby syndrome, a fatal condition that affects infants, says one suit, filed in Delaware Superior Court.
The other suit, also filed in Superior Court, said about 87 plaintiffs have unknowingly consumed “dangerous and polluted drinking water” which has endangered their health and reduced the value of their homes.
For its part, the company has admitted that its waste water treatment plant malfunctioned because of a buildup of solids, and that it is spending $40 million to fix the problem, but denies it is responsible for high nitrate levels in people’s wells. Tests on nearby private wells in 1981 and 1991, up to 19 years before Mountaire bought the plant from Townsend’s Inc., showed the chemicals exceeded state limits, it said.
“We are convinced that there is absolutely no connection between our waste water upset and elevated levels of nitrates found in some nearby wells late last year,” the company said in an advertisement placed in local media in early August. “The nitrate problem in Millsboro-area drinking water wells was established in Millsboro long before Mountaire was.”
Mountaire spokeswoman Rachel Lord said the company expects to file responses to the lawsuits in coming weeks.
The company employs about 5,000 people across the Delmarva Peninsula, and says it contributes some $4 billion annually to the Delaware economy. That’s why some Millsboro residents fear the lawsuits could force the company to cut back in ways that would hurt the economy of the town of 4,300 residents.
“Mountaire should be able to take the steps it needs to take,” said Diane Counts, a 21-year resident of Millsboro whose water is not affected. “It might cut into their profits a little bit. I don’t think it should shut the company down.”
But Counts, 66, who works for a pharmaceutical company, said the highest priority is clean water. She defended the rights of plaintiffs to file their suits, and for Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to require the company to fix its waste water system, as detailed in a consent agreement signed in May.
“How else can you address your grievance if you can’t bring it before the courts, and hopefully that’s when the facts will come out?” Counts said on Main Street in Millsboro, as noisy trucks loaded with crates full
of live chickens rolled by on their way to the processing plant. “Obviously our first priority has to be safe water.”
In the consent agreement, DNREC says “some but not all” private water wells near the plant have been found with nitrates above the state’s health limit of 10 milligrams per litre, and that even though Mountaire denies responsibility for the contamination, it has agreed as part of the settlement to provide affected residents with a connection to a central water supply system or to deep private wells.
In November 2017, the department said Mountaire’s waste-treatment practices had violated permits in 34 categories.
Since Mountaire began to fix the system, there have been some improvements to waste water quality, DNREC said, but the company won’t reach full compliance with state standards until it completes the project.
While many residents along Jersey Road use the water jugs supplied by Mountaire, Alice Betts is quite happy with her well water and has been drinking it for more than half a century.
“I’ve been drinking it all my life and I raised my boys on it,” said Betts, 79, as her son killed a snake in her driveway.
She defended Mountaire and the previous owner of the plant where her late husband worked for much of his life, and where her sons often had summer jobs.
Betts said Mountaire has been doing whatever it can to solve the waste water problem. “There is a problem and I think they work with it. They’re everybody’s livelihood around here I suppose.”
But she acknowledged that in an ideal world, she would prefer it if the company operated somewhere other than the town where she has lived since 1954. “If I was a zillionaire, I would buy Mountaire and move it out of Delaware,” she said.
Mac Williams, another Jersey Road homeowner who receives bottled water from Mountaire, joined one of the lawsuits after learning about the water issues at a public meeting, and because he wanted to express solidarity with his neighbors. He said he has not experienced health problems that might be caused by his well water.
“I’ve signed on just for the purpose of being safe for myself and my grandkids,” said Williams, 76, a retired New Jersey school teacher who has owned his home since 1984 and moved to Millsboro full time about two years ago. “I’m not a chemist, I’m not a scientist. There was a meeting, everything was explained. I was kinda shocked that this has been going on.”
Still, he believes the company is working seriously to fix the waste water problem and is doing what it can to restore relations with the community. “They are working on it as far as I know, and that’s all they can do,” he said. Besides, he said, “I like chicken.”