Class-action suit filed against Mountaire
Attorneys want compensation for 700 living near poultry plant
By Melissa Steele
Attorneys representing about 700 people living near the Mountaire poultry plant in Millsboro say it may take $150 million to remedy wastewater contamination, health problems and plummeting property values. They say a class-action suit filed June 13 in Sussex County Superior Court may solve the problems.
Despite years of violations, accompanied by state and federal orders to lower nitrogen levels in wastewater, Mountaire continues to pollute groundwater needed by residents who depend on wells for their drinking water, said Chase Brockstedt of Lewes law firm Baird Mandalas Brockstedt, which filed the 400-page lawsuit in association with Maryland law firm Schochor, Federico & Staton.
Standing alongside a panel of experts in Millsboro Town Hall, Brockstedt said attorneys and experts spent six months researching pollution to groundwater and air by Mountaire's spray irrigation and sludge application process, which spreads material on area farmland and forests.
Brockstedt said they included expert documentation with the lawsuit because “we wanted to have our ducks in a row.”
Co-counsel Phil Federico said the lawsuit seeks to compensate neighbors of the Route 24 plant for health problems associated with high nitrate levels such as cancer, gastrointestinal problems and problems experienced by pregnant women.
“There is a whole health component that people will be compensated for,” he said.
Declining property values for those living near the plant will also be addressed, Federico said. In one case, he said, a property owner was set to sell a parcel of land for $17 million, but it later fell through.
“There's a real stigma associated with owning a property in an environmentally compromised area, and certainly these individuals who live in the area are entitled to be compensated for that,” he said.
Consent order input
A consent order recently signed by Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin and Mountaire officials addresses nitrate contamination only in a small area compared to the greater area affected by runoff and groundwater contamination, according to the lawsuit.
Federico said attorneys for the plaintiffs should be given a seat at the table as DNREC and Mountaire work out a solution for wastewater treatment at the plant. The consent order has been assigned to Sussex County Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes, who has yet to sign it. Before the order was assigned to Stokes, Brockstedt filed a motion to intervene because the consent order does not address health effects caused by high nitrate levels.
Federico said the latest lawsuit gives plaintiffs a chance to give their input on the consent order and be part of a solution.
“It certainly is the appropriate vehicle to get these individuals in your community properly taken care of,” he said.
Joining lawsuit attorneys, a panel of experts painted a picture of Mountaire as a chronic polluter since it began operation in 2003. A review of some of the 50 monitoring wells around the facility shows elevated levels of nitrates that have continued to increase up to six times the permitted level of 10 parts per million.
Dane Bauer, a wastewater spray irrigation expert with 40 years of
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ATTORNEY CHASE BROCKSTEDT, right, and a panel of wastewater experts announce a class-action lawsuit against Mountaire June 13.
MELISSA STEELE PHOTO
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experience, said Mountaire is the most egregious violator he has ever seen.
“It's going to take decades to clean up,” he said.
Air and odor expert Deborah Jennings, supported by a study of air quality near Mountaire using 2016 data, said uncovered anaerobic lagoons in Mountaire's existing wastewater system are releasing elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Both substances cause breathing problems, and the release of fumes could be solved by covering the lagoons, she said.
“They need to cover those lagoons,” she said.
In a statement released shortly after the press conference announcing the class-action lawsuit, Mountaire officials said they expect to receive a copy of the lawsuit soon, and they will defend allegations in court and also question the plaintiffs' experts.
“As we have stated many times previously, elevated levels of nitrates in Sussex County is a very common widespread environmental condition that has existed for many decades, way before the arrival of Mountaire,” the statements reads. “We will have further comment once we have had the opportunity to read the complaint in full.”