Sussex County has two sets of drinking-water quality issues, according to Mohammad Akhter: the statewide quality of water and the private well water — especially concerning the Mountaire poultry plant’s recent contamination problem in Millsboro.
Akhter was speaking in Georgetown at a public forum, “Safe Drinking Water? Everyone’s Concern — Part 2,” hosted Aug. 8 by the League of Women Voters of Sussex County. The group wanted to raise awareness of current well-water contamination, but also to encourage the public to insist on long-term solutions.
Akhter brought broad perspective from various past jobs, including as former director of the American Public Health Association.
Gov. Jack Markell once called Delaware’s surface water “embarrassing. People cannot drink from the tap or eat local seafood in many places.” But this spring, after years of brainstorming on a fair solution to create a clean-up fund, the resulting House Bill 270 got tabled in committee.
“You’ve got to fund the agencies properly so they can do their job,” Ahkter said, drawing applause from the audience.
Cancer seems to occur at a high rate in Sussex County, Ahkter reminded the crowd, and the root cause is still unknown, although he suggested it could be contaminated water.
Ahkter suggested that the health department should be more involved in planning and zoning decisions. Just like the government measures the impact of new development or factories on public roads, stormwater, drainage or density, so should they measure the impact on public health, he said.
“There’s nobody looking at the health of the people,” Akhter said.
Also, he noted, the Centers for Disease Control will only respond to the State’s official request to investigate perceived health complaints, but it won’t respond to individual citizens. So locals must petition the state health department to request federal assistance.
Ahkter suggested people take their water tests to the doctor when diagnosing health issues.
“He might prescribe you to drink clean water,” Ahkter said.
When citizens have a problem, they need to run it up a certain chain of command, Ahkter advised. First, call public officials. If there is no response, contact the news media, then the federal government, then non-profit organizations and, finally, the courts.
“And that’s where we are. The community have filed a class-action suit against the polluters,” Ahkter said of the multiple lawsuits against Mountaire.
DNREC takes the mic
Deputy Secretary Lisa Borin Ogden explained DNREC’s role in planning, permitting and programming to address all angles of environmental protection, from preventing contaminants to protecting wetlands. Slowly, she said, some things are improving.
“It isn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t going to happen overnight. It can take a long time for the watershed to respond to multi-sector water-quality improvement efforts,” she said. “But we’re seeing trends of improvement, and that’s important… The majority of Delaware’s watersheds are showing a slowdown in deterioration, or even an improvement, when it comes to nitrogen levels in our streams and rivers.”
For instance, she said, the striped bass population is considered restored, although some of those in the forum audience noted that there are still consumption advisories on eating stripers, or rockfish, as they’re also known.
“There is still a lot of work to be done —we’re not denying — but clean water is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone can participate in the solution,” Borin Ogden said. “If you see something, if you want to call us and tell us what the problems are, that would be really helpful, because we can’t be everywhere all the time.”
DNREC has several tip lines, including 1-800-662-8802 for environmental complaints and emergency response and (302) 739-9902 for public affairs. All the numbers are listed online at https://dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/contacts.
Some in the crowd said they were disappointed by Borin Ogden dodging questions about Mountaire and fellow poultry processor Allen Harim, citing the courts’ involvement with both poultry plants. She said she hoped for a ruling soon but would convey their messages from the night’s conversation to the head of DNREC.
She also pushed back against an accusation of DNREC not enforcing its permits adequately.
“I think that is what we are doing on a daily basis,” Borin Ogden said. “We are doing are best to make sure, if we are permitting something, we are offering compliance and compliance assistance, and then we force them to comply.”
Where specific questions couldn’t be answered immediately, both speakers encouraged people to call DNREC or the Office of Drinking Water for more details.
Public water has more protections than private
There are protections for public water systems in Delaware. The Office of Drinking Water regulates all public water systems. On a large scale, that includes towns that provide water, such as Millsboro or Selbyville, and utility companies, such as Artesian and Tidewater. On a small scale, that could mean a smaller neighborhood or even a business that provides water in a public way.
“I understand, at the last [LWV] meeting, they didn’t know my office existed. … We enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in Delaware,” said Program Administrator Keith Mensch of the ODW, which operates under the Division of Public Health, rather than DNREC.
Details are posted online at https://waterquality.delaware.gov. Test results are posted regularly at https://drinkingwater.dhss.delaware.gov. Concerns and complaints about public water systems can be telephoned in to the Department of Health & Social Services at (302) 741-8630.
A major concern expressed at the forum was that the State does not regulate private wells. It has records of when people dig their wells but will not try not control them. That’s a benefit for the private individual who doesn’t want outside interference, but at the same time, there’s also less public protection in a crisis. That’s why ODW didn’t launch an investigation into the Mountaire situation — they have no authority over private wells, such as the ones believed to be impacted by Mountaire’s problems.
“The only way to regulate drinking water effectively is through sampling,” Mensch said, but the government cannot enter a person’s private property without permission or due cause, due to the Fourth Amendment. So, if people volunteer to allow water sampling on their property, that’s fine. But if they can turn a government official away, it can’t be considered a regulated resource.
Delaware does help subsidize the cost for the $4 private well-water tests available through the Office of Drinking Water and Community Environmental Health Services. For details or to purchase kits, contact Delaware Health & Social Services, Division of Public Health, Thurman Adams State Service Center, 546 South Bedford Street, Georgetown, or call (302) 515-3300.
People also asked why the Town of Blades got such a swift and powerful response, with the Delaware National Guard handing out bottled water, when perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) were discovered in public water there in February.
Mensch said DNREC had already been working with the EPA to study the potential for PFCs, due to metal-plating operations that were historically located nearby. They took action when PFOs/PFOA ranged from 96.2/ppt to 187.1/ppt — far above the established national human health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
By Laura Walter