Mountaire faces another lawsuit

MILLSBORO — Mountaire has been hit with a second lawsuit this month, just 15 days apart.

Filed June 28 in Delaware Superior Court by the Wilmington-based law firm of Jacobs & Crumplar P.A., and Nidel & Pace PLLC of Washington, D.C., the lawsuit alleges Mountaire’s wastewater and spray irrigation practices at its Millsboro facility have contaminated private wells, exposed residents to odors, unsafe levels of nitrates and other contaminants and decreased property values.

“As a proximate and direct result of defendants’ negligence, plaintiffs have suffered serious economic and non-economic harm including personal injuries, property damages, diminution in home value, loss of use and enjoyment of property, and other damages,” the lawsuit states.

The suit names Mountaire Farms of Delaware Inc., Mountaire Farms Inc., both Delaware corporations, and Mountaire Corp., of Arkansas as defendants.

Dozens of persons, mostly residents living in close proximity to Mountaire’s spray irrigation fields, are named as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit states that as “a proximate and direct result of Mountaire’s reckless, negligent, willful, wanton, and intentional acts”: plaintiffs’ wells have been contaminated by elevated levels of nitrates and other chemical and biological constituents;
plaintiffs have unknowingly been consuming dangerous and polluted drinking water, which contains, inter alia, elevated levels of nitrates and other chemical and biological constituents;

plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer a diminution in property value, personal injuries, future medical monitoring, and other economic injuries including the need for deep well drilling and/or public water connection.

The document states that the purportedly treated water from Mountaire’s processing operations and slaughter of approximately two million chickens per day is disposed of via spray irrigation on the 928 acres of farmland surrounding the processing plant, which is adjacent to Swan Creek and the Indian River.

The lawsuit states that the Mountaire facility is situated on the Columbia surficial aquifer and the Upper Chesapeake aquifer. These aquifers supply drinking water for human consumption both at the facility and for surrounding residential wells, according to the suit.

Additionally, the lawsuit cites numerous wastewater violations, both state and federal, that Mountaire has incurred since it assumed ownership of the property in 2000.

“Groundwater monitoring wells have consistently exceeded the drinking water standard of for nitrates of 10 mg/L and Mountaire has not shown improvement in this drinking water standard since 2000,” the lawsuit states. “Groundwater data from 2016 indicates that the nitrate levels were as high as 92.5 mg/L, i.e., 9.5 times the legal limit. Groundwater data from 2017 indicates that the nitrate levels were as high as 65.8, 6.5 times the legal limit.”

According to the lawsuit, the U.S. EPA has identified the MCL for nitrate as 10 mg/L as nitrogen. EPA has determined that above this level, nitrate poses a health threat to the population in general, and an acute health threat to children under 6 months of age.

Ingested nitrate is readily and completely absorbed from the upper small intestine from which it is distributed throughout the body. Nitrate levels at or above this level have been known to cause a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants under six months of age called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby” syndrome, in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.

Other negative health effects of drinking water with elevated nitrate levels include: Congenital malformations; Thyroid malfunction; Gastrointestinal malfunction; Cardiac effects, disorders and malfunction; Inflammatory reactions; and other health effects, the lawsuit states.

In addition, the lawsuit states that the presence of elevated fecal coliform reasonably indicates the presence of other pathogens in plaintiffs’ drinking water, which could reasonably cause illness and/or disease including gastrointestinal damage, diarrhea, and other infections, stomach problems, and illnesses, according to the suit.

The 91-page lawsuit seeks compensatory, special and punitive damages. It individually lists each of the plaintiffs and how they have been impacted by the application of wastes on the Mountaire spray disposal sites at the facility.

The lawsuit encompasses a wrongful death on behalf of Gina Burton, mother of Kiwanis Burton, who the suit alleges died “after suffering a severe asthma attack while at home and being subjected to odors and air pollution caused by the defendants.”

Thursday’s legal action comes 15 days after a class action lawsuit was filed June 13 in Delaware Superior Court on behalf of more than 700 residents. That lawsuit, filed by the Delaware law firm of Baird Mandalas LLC and Brockstedt in association with the Maryland firm of Schochor, Federico and Stanton, P.A., alleges Mountaire’s wrongful discharge of its wastewater and sludge has contaminated area drinking water wells, caused chronic exposure to elevated and unsafe levels of nitrates and other contaminants, and diminished property values.

On June 4, a consent decree agreement between DNREC and Mountaire was filed in Delaware Superior Court. The decree provides for over $36 million in wastewater treatment plant upgrades to be completed within 24 months, remediation of decades-old groundwater contamination as well as an alternative water supply for Mountaire’s neighbors.

In response to the consent decree, the law firm of Baird Mandalas and Brockstedt LLC filed a motion in Delaware Superior Court to intervene. Mountaire Farms of Delaware, Inc. subsequently asked the Delaware Superior Court to strike intervention attempts to disrupt work needed to commence under the consent decree.

Mountaire, in a company statement, labeled the June 13 lawsuit a “publicity stunt by a group of lawyers hoping to cash in on a problem that has already been solved through a consent decree with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.”

Additionally, Mountaire has continuously stated that “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 and certainly did not occur just in the past 17 years.”

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