Delaware Poultry Plant Agrees to Pay $205 Million After Polluting Groundwater for Years

Photo: Mountaire

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

One of the largest chicken producers in the country — the family-owned Mountaire Corp. — agreed to pay $205 million to settle two court cases that its Delaware plants contaminated water wells, waterways, and the surrounding air with improperly disposed of wastewater. In 2017, Montaire’s plant in Millsboro, Delaware, dumped approximately two million gallons of sludge into fields without submitting the required documents to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). The court found that this sludge contaminated the groundwater with excessive nitrate, which can be harmful to human health. 

Why this Matters: Groundwater contamination affects communities across the country. In Orange County and Oakland, California groundwater polluted with industrial waste is seeping into sources of drinking water. It’s not just factories: fracking is also a major contributor to groundwater pollution. In February, the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voted unanimously to ban fracking in the Delaware River Basin in order to make its water safer to drink. Perhaps this case bodes well for enforcing our clean water laws to prevent industrial production from polluting more groundwater.

In Hot Water

Mountaire’s settlement encompassed two separate court actions: one filed in Delaware Superior Court on behalf of residents, and the other filed in U.S. District Court by the DNRECThe federal standard for drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates. But Mountaire’s Delaware plant was dumping 20 to 100 milligrams of nitrates per liter. DNREC found that 18 out of 34 private wells nearby had excess nitrates, with some having three times the federal standard.  These nitrates reduced property values and caused “malodorous” air pollution of sulfide and ammonia. But worst of all, this pollution has caused severe health problems. A recent study of 249 residents found unusually high rates of cancer, gastrointestinal disease, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, wheezing, shortness of breath and other sicknesses.

What’s Next?

Mountaire Corp is the sixth largest chicken company in the U.S., with plants in Arkansas, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Its Millsboro plant slaughters about two million chickens a week, and normally treats two million gallons of wastewater a day, and then sends it to lined lagoons and sprays it on thirteen fields. As a result, Montaire will have to spend $140 million to upgrade its treatment system, which had failed in 2017 due to an increase in production. This 2017 failure caused the lion’s share of its groundwater pollution. In addition, Mountaire Corp. will have to put aside $65 million to pay for residents whose properties were damaged by its plant.  

Phillip Plylar, president of Mountaire, said in a statement:“… We’re ready to put this chapter behind us and forge a new relationship with our neighbors moving forward.” But for the residents who have been affected by Mountaire’s irresponsible pollution, the damage has already been done. One resident, Larry Miller, believes that this contaminated water caused the loss of his mother in 2007 and his wife in 2013, to kidney cancer. He told the Washington Post: “I wish we had known then. We would have quit drinking the water or complained about what they were doing.”

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