Mountaire waste the subject of two events

Date Published: 
Jan. 19, 2018

Northeast of the Indian River, Millsboro area residents are filling up their 2018 calendars, and those definitely aren’t social engagements.

Public meetings have been scheduled left and right regarding the Mountaire poultry processing plant’s potential role as nearby households begin finding high nitrates in their private well-water, above the 10 mg/L limit.

In November, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control cited Mountaire for scores of wastewater violations, stemming partly from a treatment system that didn’t fully process used water before irrigating local crop fields with it.

Interest groups of all kinds will tackle the issue from different angles, from environmental interests to DNREC permitting. At least two legal partnerships of four law firms are soliciting clients among residents.

Mountaire itself scheduled a public meeting for Millsboro-area residents on Wednesday, Jan. 17, (just after the Coastal Point’s press deadline), at Indian River Senior Center.

“While Mountaire does not believe that the recent wastewater treatment system upset is a significant source of elevated nitrate levels in the area, we feel that as a corporate neighbor with long-standing and excellent relationships in our community, it is the appropriate time to have this meeting with our neighbors,” Mountaire representatives stated on Jan. 15.

At the meeting, attendees were to be able to ask questions of Mountaire personnel, as well as experts in various water- and health-related fields.

In addition to nitrogen, additional violations of Mountaire’s spray-irrigation permit and agricultural-utilization permit had also revealed excess fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS). Mountaire representatives said the company had already fired several wastewater employees over the incident.

Center for Inland Bays speaks up

A dozen miles from Mountaire’s Millsboro plant, on the opposite side of the Indian River Bay, the Delaware Center for Inland Bays (CIB) is deciding how to respond to the potential contamination of the watershed. They created a Mountaire Contamination Outreach Ad-Hoc Subcommittee to study the issue and develop an official response to the situation.

That might include a general letter-to-the-editor about nitrates’ impact on the inland bays or higher-level actions, such as policy recommendations for Delaware to prevent that type of violation from occurring in the future.

The CIB subcommittee convened on Jan. 3 and will meet again Wednesday, Jan. 24, at 10 a.m. All CIB meetings are open to the public.

“Decisions that we make today are going to influence our generation and our kids’ generation,” said CIB Executive Director Chris Bason. “Those decisions are on the type of policy we have, how well that policy’s enforced.”

On the larger environmental side, contaminants move very slowly across the watershed. Some households have seen elevated nitrogen levels immediately, while others may take more time. Based on DNREC data, Bason said he has not yet seen a specific spike in nitrogen levels in the watershed in the seven weeks since the original violation.

“I think the general feeling from folks is there this big violation, they’re pumping all this untreated water on the fields, and now the river’s going to go to crap,” he said. “What’s important for everyone to understand is … it has to infiltrate into the groundwater and then that water has to drain through the aquifer.”

Some of the water has already hit the aquifer, but it could be years or decades before it fully reaches the Indian River and the inland bays.

Nitrogen is already high in the Indian River, but the concentrations fluctuate from month to month, according to DNREC data that Bason provided. February and March typically have the highest average readings.

Bason said he was glad Mountaire planned a public forum to address human and environmental health, especially after DNREC declined the CIB’s offer to co-host a public forum.

Public comments open on sludge permit

Mountaire needs to fix its equipment in a hurry. DNREC is accepting public comments on Mountaire’s amended permit application for a short-term sludge storage facility at the Millsboro facility.

The Division of Water’s Surface Water Discharges Section will host a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m. at Millsboro Town Hall/Town Center, located at 322 Wilson Highway.

Only comments directly related to the proposed sludge storage activities will be accepted. People wishing to speak should register with the presiding hearing officer by Jan. 22 by email to Robert.Haynes@state.de.us or by mail to Robert P. Haynes, Esq., Office of the Secretary, DNREC; 89 Kings Hwy.; Dover, DE 19904. Written comments are also being accepted.

Interested persons may contact Brian Churchill at (302) 739-9946 for more information.

“Upon completion of the construction of the storage facility and permit issuance, the permittee would be authorized to temporarily store anaerobic lagoon sludge generated at the Millsboro Mountaire poultry processing facility,” DNREC’s legal notice states.

That activity is permissible, pending public notice. Mountaire’s goal is to clear the excess sludge (bio-solids) from the system, providing room for maintenance to the anaerobic lagoons. The temporary solution (costing up to $10 million) merely paves the way for a $25 million wastewater treatment upgrade, according to Mountaire spokesperson Sean McKeon.

Since the request amends DNREC’s public notice from Oct. 18, 2017, all public comments that were submitted at that time do not have to be re-submitted and will be considered as part of the review of the amended permit application. In the fall of 2017, DNREC hadn’t planned to host a public hearing on the request unless the Secretary received a “written meritorious objection” or determined it was in public interest. Now, the hearing will be held after all.