Mountaire plans wastewater overhaul

Date Published: 
Nov. 24, 2017

After receiving a flood of wastewater violations in Millsboro, leaders at Mountaire Farms Inc. are planning a multi-million-dollar upgrade.

Sampling at the Route 24 poultry processing plant is slowly returning to normal after the wastewater treatment lagoons stopped doing their job, leading to disapproval from the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) Groundwater Discharges Section.

DNREC’s Nov. 2 violation report (W-17-GWD-13) shows violations of Mountaire’s spray irrigation permit and agricultural utilization permit, especially for wastewater containing nitrogen, fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demand (BODs) and total suspended solids (TSS).

“We’ve been operating with this system for a while. In August of this year, our engineers … discovered an upset in our wastewater treatment facility. The cause of it was a build-up of solids and lack of oxygen in the system,” said Sean McKeon, Mountaire spokesperson. “It’s not one of those things that would show itself right away.”

“As of today, all wastewater parameters are back in compliance with the company’s permit limits, with the exception of total nitrogen, TSS and BOD — all of which have decreased significantly,” stated DNREC Spokesperson Michael Globetti. “Mountaire also is submitting bi-weekly reports to update DNREC on the progress of corrective measures at the facility.”

Mountaire disposes of all wastewater through a spray irrigation system, north and south of Route 24 in Millsboro. The facility can spray a monthly average of 2.6 million gallons per day. On the surface, spray irrigation can appear to be a fairly environmentally friendly method of disposal. Water is treated onsite, then used to irrigate local fields that are owned by Mountaire but farmed by local farmers. Barley, corn and soybeans consume nutrients from the wastewater and allow excess water to filter naturally into the ground.

But if something goes wrong, those undesirable ingredients end up in the groundwater.

In monitoring wells, nitrogen was being measured at 66 percent above the permitted 15.6 mg/L average up to 76.75 mg/L. In August, six fields exceeded the annual maximum (320 pounds annually per acre) in one month alone. In 2015, nitrogen was over-applied on 11 of 13 fields.

Violations were numerous: at least 30 for excess nitrogen (tests in September averaged 379 mg/L); 29 for biochemical oxygen demand (BODs); 24 for total suspended solids (TSS); and 16 for total chlorine residual. Fecal coliform had nine violations, at its worst jumping in August to more than 100 colonies per liter (officially 1,100,000 col/100 mL).

Additional violations were related to the permits, effluent, groundwater, failure to submit plans of corrective action, failure to maintain all the equipment as required, failure to provide DNREC notifications or complete data, and more.

Several agricultural violations related to Mountaire’s applying bio-solids to the fields in an untimely manner and without submitting crop plans to DNREC.

“Groundwater monitoring wells have consistently exceeded the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L [up to 65.8 mg/L in March] for nitrate nitrogen and have shown no improvements since Mountaire acquired ownership of the facility in May of 2000,” DNREC’s notice stated.

It didn’t help that, because of employee turnover, Mountaire couldn’t immediately determine the rate sludge was being applied to the fields.

In September, Mountaire staff sent word that effluent was being tested at an invalid sampling point, which didn’t represent both clarifiers in the system.

They also realized not all flow from clarifiers was discharging properly into the storage lagoon. Some lines were “bypassing the lagoon and discharging directly to central pivots,” the notice said. It appears that the lines need to be re-seeded.

Corrective plans take shape

Mountaire must return operations to normal, meeting permit and design specifications. They must submit a corrective work action plan by Dec. 1, with long-term and short-term solutions.

They’ll have daily monitoring, biweekly updates and monthly meetings with DNREC.

As long as effluent isn’t meeting permit guidelines, DNREC has imposed additional restrictions, including limited spraying during rainy weather and additional buffers to prevent fecal coliform from reaching public access roads.

Phase 1 of the correction plan tackles the immediate issues, such as lack of oxygen, excess bio-solid removal, increased analysis and better staffing. The six-month project will cost between $5 and $10 million, McKeon said.

Phase 2 is a complete wastewater treatment upgrade to a “state-of-the-art system that will probably be the largest and most effective system in the state,” costing more than $25 million and possibly coming online in about 1.5 years, in roughly the same location. That became a priority when the problems were discovered.

Several employees who were not operating the system up to snuff “are no longer with us. They’ve been replaced by new and other employees who are operating the system correctly,” McKeon said. “And it’s being monitored. We’ve been working very, very closely with DNREC.”

After a lack of maintenance on the anaerobic lagoons, it appears that Mountaire needs to catch up by clearing excess sludge (treated bio-solids) from the system and applying it to additional land, which requires more permits and more real estate.

“Mountaire also is requesting to use a former lagoon for temporary staging and dewatering of the some of the removed solids,” according to Globetti.

DNREC has further enforcement powers if Mountaire fails to comply.

The violations weren’t apparent earlier this year during a permit renewal with DNREC’s Groundwater Discharges Section (GWDS). At the time, the only apparent permit violations were the increased nitrogen levels in the effluent. GWDS included a compliance schedule to address nitrogen concentrations in the renewal permit, which Mountaire appealed in August, rather than followed. A hearing on that is still pending.

“We work very hard to be a good corporate neighbor in the communities in which we operate, and our desire is to achieve excellence,” McKeon said. “Our commitment to this community is we will allocate the resources necessary to [do upgrades], both short- and long-term.”

Neighbors concerned over water safety

The violations have caused concern among nearby residents. McKeon said he’s spoken to a number of residents to allay their fears.

“We purchased the Millsboro operation back in 2000. At the time, there was existing groundwater problems here,” McKeon said.

Because of the property’s longtime use as a poultry plant, Mountaire has provided water or water treatment to some residents for 14 years. Townsend’s Inc. had used spray irrigation at its poultry plant on that site for years. Environmental regulations have also increased as government realized what untreated wastewater could do to the area.

“Mountaire has been providing bottled water or water treatment to eight [households] downgradient of the spray fields since 2003 through an Order on Consent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and continues to do so,” according to Globetti.

“[Lately] DNREC’s Division of Water and the Division of Public Health’s Office of Drinking Water have been conducting sampling of drinking water wells for residents adjacent to the facility that may be in the path of groundwater flow from beneath the Mountaire spray fields,” Globetti continued.

“Because of historically elevated nitrates in the area groundwater and the EPA 2003 Order on Consent, the majority of the residences sampled are already using bottled water or water treatment systems.”

Until this summer, Mountaire had been planning to expand its Millsboro operation to add a third production line. They later withdrew the Coastal Zone Act Permit application.