Town, Mountaire clash on waste

Tensions between Selbyville officials and Mountaire Inc. have ebbed and flowed over the years.

The poultry processing plant in Selbyville is the sole industrial user of the town’s sewer system, and problems with levels of nutrients in the wastewater it puts out have often meant thousands of dollars in fines assessed by the town.

Additionally, complaints of odor, noise and refuse escaping from the plant and bothering neighbors have hardly been unheard of for town officials.

Mountaire has regularly reported on efforts to curtail such problems, having an established spot at town council meetings in which they dialogue on such issues. And, most recently, they’ve been reporting on plans to build a new wastewater treatment system that they say will help eliminate the excess nutrients in what goes into the town sewer system.

“We’re anxious for approval to get started on the plant,” Mountaire’s Ron Witte told the council at their June 6 meeting.

But the town has been skeptical about whether the proposed treatment system is up to the job. They recently sent a sewer-department supervisor to a New York paper-processing plant to examine a similar system, and Town Administrator Gary Taylor said concerns hadn’t been entirely assuaged.

“He had reservations still about the plant not operating on a consistent basis, with large clumps and odors generated,” Taylor reported. He said there were concerns about noise from the machinery in the plant, as well as the lingering odors.

In fact, the recommendation had been that the town require a well-insulated building to house the plant machinery, if the town permitted its construction, to deaden such noise. Taylor emphasized that the town’s biggest concern was ensuring that the new plant would be as or less noisy and odor-generating than the existing arrangement, not generate more noise or odor.

Witte took issue with the visit to the New York plant, saying Mountaire had provided a list of similar plants operating in similar ways — including one in Ocean City, Md. — and that the New York plant wasn’t operating at the high level Mountaire would be, on the same level as that more local operation. Taylor said he hadn’t seen any reference to the Ocean City facility.

“This is a different application of the ‘AK’ system,” Witte told the council. “You’re comparing apples to oranges.” He said if odor was such an extreme concern for the town, they should look at the Ocean City facility for reassurances.

Though they’d sent the official on the fact-finding mission to New York, Selbyville officials were reluctant to leave the surety to another such a visit.

Mayor Clifton Murray asked, “Where is our protection if this thing doesn’t work?” He said previous systems had been expected to work but had not. Councilman Clarence W. “Bud” Tingle Jr. agreed. “This is about the third attempt at this, and the others didn’t work.”

“It’s up to you guys to put something in that reduces odors, that doesn’t hurt the town,” Murray said. “What is our recourse? We don’t want to go without reassurances.”

Witte chaffed at the requirement, saying, “We recommended places with a high level of performance, and you didn’t go there. Seven months later, we’re still concerned about this problem and this issue. We want to move forward.”

Councilman Jay Murray replied, “We still want some assurances. If we have a strong odor in town, what are you going to do about it?”

The council members asked Mountaire to define some sort of plan for that dreaded circumstance — would the company shut down the plant if it didn’t work or continue to use it until it could be fixed?

Jay Murray said, “You seem to have faith in this system. I guess you need to put your faith in writing.”

Taylor said the council wanted assurances from Mountaire that problems would be taken care of immediately. “We get lots of calls (now). If it gets worse, what is their recourse?”

Witte said he would like a letter from the town defining just what kind of assurances it wanted, but he and fellow Mountaire representative Everett Browne said they’d consult with company attorneys and the town solicitor to draft a written agreement that, they hoped, would get the project moving forward.

Brown turned to more positive subjects, reporting that the plant had achieved 7 million safe work hours and was planning a “safety day” celebration on July 14 to observe that mark. With luck, he said, the plant would hit the 8 million safe work-hour mark on July 11. He said state and local dignitaries were being invited to the event, and he extended an invitation for Selbyville officials to join them.

“We hope this will get communication going again,” Brown said, implicitly acknowledging some of the difficulties between Mountaire and the town.

But it wasn’t long before tensions took another upward swing between the two entities, with Councilman G. Frank Smith’s assertion later in the meeting that the Mountaire officials had been incorrect when they told the council a 200 gallon spill of wastewater from the plant onto neighboring school property did not need to be reported to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

Smith said a spill of non-sanitary water less than 10,000 gallons in size did not require notification to DNREC, but a spill of any amount of “industrial waste” required such notification.

Witte adamantly disputed Smith’s categorization of the wastewater spill as “industrial waste,” saying it didn’t contain any hazardous chemicals. But Smith said he’d been told the spill was considered industrial waste and thus required DNREC to be notified, no matter how small the amount.

Witte said he would be bringing proof of his claim to the council.

The council also assessed Mountaire yet another $1,000 administrative penalty at the June 6 meeting, for ordinance violations involving concentration of nutrients in the wastewater entering the town sewer system.