Delaware may have lots of environmental regulations, but whether they’re being enforced is a different story. In studying the Mountaire Millsboro poultry plant’s repeated violations and ultimate 2017 wastewater treatment upset, the Delaware Center for Inland Bays (CIB) this week partly blamed state and federal regulators for allowing the problems to mount up.
The 11-page CIB report was issued April 9.
“It’s possible the facility might have been in violation of permit conditions since 2005. Today, neither the EPA nor DNREC [Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control] have enforced compliance with multiple permits and orders, and this contributed to the failure of the wastewater system in 2017,” said CIB Executive Director Chris Bason.
In August of 2017, an “upset condition” caused the Mountaire Farms wastewater treatment system to spray wastewater with elevated levels of nitrogen, fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS) onto local farm fields. The incident was the culmination of several years of lesser permit violations.
Mountaire’s processing plant and spray-irrigation fields are located right beside Swan Creek and the Indian River, which flow into the inland bays and right into the CIB’s purview.
“What we found was that the Mountaire facility has a history of chronic permit violations and has increasingly polluted drinking water resources, and the state’s estuary is in most need of protection,” Bason said. “This is going to degrade the Indian River for years to come, as the polluted groundwater enters the Indian River over time.”
The poultry plant has existed there since the mid-1900s. Mountaire took over in the new millennium and signed an EPA consent order for wastewater disposal. Mountaire has a permit to spray more than 2 million gallons of treated wastewater daily onto 1,000 acres of farmed fields that it owns.
More problems come from overloading water and nutrients onto the fields — groundwater can move at a faster rate, shaking loose legacy nutrients from the soil into the aquifer and open rivers.
“Under high rates of wastewater application on the fields, groundwater can travel even faster, and … in a greater variety of directions than it would under natural conditions,” Bason said.
The inland bays have naturally long flushing times before the water is refreshed at the ocean, so the Indian River is extra-sensitive when pollutants get stuck in the system.
Looking at DNREC’s water tests since 2000, the CIB reported that total nitrogen concentration in the Indian River near Swan Creek was typically above the 1 mg/L standard, only surpassing 4 mg/L just a few times. However, the number spiked to 7 mg/L in August of 2017.
“This is a single value, and it’s very alarming,” said Bason, although he admitted the other factors could be at play in a watershed with many farms, homes, businesses and septic systems.
Over the years, the EPA and DNREC have issued and reissued various permits and orders, but “violations of wastewater discharge permits in southern Delaware are not uncommon, and DNREC has a history of inadequate enforcement,” stated the CIB’s report.
They cited a 2013 EPA report that was critical of DNREC’s enforcement activities.
“DNREC, according to the EPA, did not appropriately escalate enforcement on significant violations and long-term noncompliance of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination program. … They found the same thing roughly in 2004 and 2008,” Bason said.
That surface-water program is different groundwater monitoring, Bason clarified.
“But it is pretty close, and I think you can draw some conclusions about the general regulatory climate by taking a look at what they EPA found in this report.”
Although the CIB had asked about DNREC staffing levels needed for adequate enforcement, that information was not available before the report was published, Bason said.
Despite their sharp review, the CIB will wait until DNREC completes its investigation, he said, before issuing further recommendations, although a draft of those recommendations has already been written.
“The Center is supportive of the work DNREC is undertaking now to take action to mitigate the pollution and resolve violations,” Bason said, “and we realize and recognize this must come from a thorough investigation, and that this takes time.”
The chickens, the water and the people
The report was crafted by the CIB’s ad-hoc Committee on Mountaire Pollution, then approved by majority vote of the CIB Board of Directors. That approval was not unanimous. Indeed, some of the board members represent agencies including DNREC and the EPA, as well as the agriculture sector.
“Our concerns are the health of the people and the health of the bays … and that we stop the pollution in the bays. That’s our mandate,” said Susie Ball, CIB board chairperson. “And with all that pollution going in the water, the water gets murky, all the little fish die. That’s a huge industry — the tourism industry on our bays.”
It’s a simple connection to make: excess nitrogen leads to algae, which consumes the oxygen fish need to grow. Delaware’s inland bays are considered critical to tourism, real estate, boating and fishing. Although agriculture is also a top industry for the state, it needs to be done intelligently, said Mike Dunmyer, CIB board member.
“I think the best companies that we have in the area are the ones that see themselves as members of the community” and take that seriously, said Dunmyer. “I think Mountaire acting in the best interests of the bay and the people around them is also Mountaire acting in their own best interest.”
Bason said Mountaire hasn’t responded to his invitations to talk, but he said he understands their hesitancy, with likely threat of lawsuits. Since winter and the revelation of the wastewater incident, nearby residents have lawyered-up as they have frantically tested their private wells for possible contamination. Mountaire has also offered free water or new wells to some of their neighbors.
“This has been a particularly frightening and frustrating time for the people that live in that area, that have had to deal with the situation,” said Bason. “I think it’s been frustrating for everybody that has, over the years, contributed and sacrificed so much to clean up the river,” including those who follow their permits, or act voluntarily, he said.
The full report includes more details and findings, and is posted online at www.inlandbays.org/mountaire-contamination-report.
Public invited to River Rally
The CIB will continue its education and outreach efforts with a River Rally on Thursday, May 10, at Cupola Park in Millsboro. From 4 to 7 p.m., their goal is to examine water quality and inspire meaningful action, with free resources, as well as free food and drink.
“This is going to be a chance for the residents of the area to come out, learn about the river, celebrate the river and find out what they can do together … to help protect the river,” Bason said.
The rain location for the event is the Indian River Senior Center, 214 Irons Avenue, Millsboro.