Mountaire’s call for more spray acreage put on hold

MILLSBORO — Sussex County Council’s verdict on Mountaire Farms’ conditional use request for additional acreage for sludge/wastewater spray irrigation on company-owned land near its Millsboro poultry processing plant is on hold.

Following a public hearing Nov. 5 punctuated by opposition, council deferred action.

It left open the public record specifically for responses to questions submitted by council to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and possibly other agencies.

Council heard testimony from Mike Tirrell, executive vice president processing operations, and Tanya Rogers-Vickers, director of environmental compliance representing Mountaire in support for its request, and a half dozen opponents.

“Did we request that DNREC be here today?” asked Councilman Irwin G. Burton III.

“We were not able to get anyone from DNREC to attend today’s meeting,” said Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Cornwell.
Council President Michael Vincent asked if DNREC was at the public hearing held in October by the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission.
“They were not,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“Would it be a good idea to get some input from DNREC on this?” asked Councilman John Rieley.
With action deferred, county council’s questions to DNREC, other agencies and/or county staff must be submitted by Nov. 12 at 4:30 p.m. Agencies and staff have until Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m. to respond. Those responses will be provided by Ms. Cornwell at the Dec. 10 county council meeting.

The applicant and/or opposition then have until 4:30 p.m. Dec. 16 to respond in writing only and to only those questions posed by council and the responses.
Sussex County’s Planning and Zoning Commission at its Oct. 24 meeting by 4-1 vote recommended approval of Mountaire’s request, with a series of conditions.

Mountaire’s conditional use request would allow the poultry company to use approximately 351 acres of land for additional spray irrigation that borders portions of Mount Joy Road, Townsend Road, Maryland Camp Road and William Street Road.

Mike Huff, a resident on Jersey Road, was among those opposed to the request.

“I’m not against Mountaire being there and employing people. I am not against farming,” said Mr. Huff, noting his family has been in agriculture industry for over 30 years. “However, in the past Mountaire has proven not to be trusted. And DNREC has proven not to be trusted.”

Mr. Huff shared with council that he is among the plaintiffs impacted by a gag order stemming from litigation brought against Mountaire.
Ms. Rogers-Vickers said the 350 additional acres would be added to the approximate 900 acres of current spray irrigated property. This, she said, would provide “better flexibility in spray operation operations, allowing us to spread the same amount of flow over 350 additional acres. Mountaire has no plans to increase production.”

“If approved that will give us more land to spray water on, without spraying anymore water,” said Mr. Tirrell. “There is no request to increase production, just more land to spray on. Conditional use approval will help us meet the objectives that we have with the DNREC to bring everything into compliance … not to increase production.”

At present, Mountaire uses 13 farm fields near its plant for spray irrigation. Under a DNREC permit, Mountaire can dispose of up to 2.6 million gallons of treated wastewater daily.

Irrigation fields are utilized to grow crops – soybean, corn, wheat and barley – for Mountaire, Ms. Rogers-Vickers said.

Noting Mountaire employs about 3,000 people at the Millsboro facility, Mr. Tirrell said Mountaire strives to be a good neighbor and plans to invest millions of dollars in a wastewater treatment plant upgrade that at full compliance will be among the “very best in the entire state of Delaware.”

Millsboro attorney Andrea Green spoke in opposition to the request. She said she recently joined the Jacobs and Crumplar law firm, which has been involved in litigation involving both Mountaire and DNREC. The firm represents about 100 Sussex County residents, she said.

Attorney Andrea Green.

“The litigation that is currently pending regarding Mountaire deals with claims regarding harm to our clients, health enjoyment of life and property values. I am not here to speak to the merits of that litigation in any respect,” said Ms. Green.

The application from Mountaire for a conditional use “seeks approval for future conduct that our clients believe carries a risk of adding more harmful nitrates to an environment that is already subject to extreme stress,” Ms. Green said.

Further, Ms. Green called on the council to protect “the public here in Sussex County. It is our position that the conditional use application should be denied.

“There has been a history of violations. As a matter of public record, there is pending litigation. We believe it would be best and it would behoove this commission (council) to defer any decision until there is a resolution of the litigation involving the problems that preexist this application.”

While Ms. Vickers said there are no plans at present to utilize sludge, it is stated in the conditional use request.

“It is my understanding by reading the application it is for both sludge and wastewater,” said Ms. Green.
“Why is sludge in here if it is not going to be applied?” asked Keith Steck of Milton.

Maria Payan of Selbyville, a field coordinator with Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, spoke in general due to the gag order.
“I would recommend first that you defeat it outright because of the prior history,” Ms. Payan said. “I would recommend denying it. You would not want your families living there. The ones who are impacted the most are the elderly and the young. There have been fish kills, crab kills …”

Councilman Rieley, whose family farm operation on Gravel Hill Road was encompassed in aerial photographs of the proposed spray sites displayed during the hearing, said there are no issues with water at his family’s property.

“My house is within that photograph, so I am trusting you guys (Mountaire) to do the right thing,” said Mr. Rieley.
Possum Point resident Lou Podolske said for years Mountaire has been “violating DNREC permits.” He also challenged Mountaire’s talk about a $50 million wastewater treatment plant, saying if it even ever does come to fruition it won’t likely be for a long, long time.

“We can’t count on DNREC. We can’t count on Mountaire,” said Mr. Podolske. “I would hope we could count on Sussex County to learn something from past experience to say to this company, ‘You need to get that wastewater treatment plant working. You need to have water coming out of your plant that is cleaner …’”

Ms. Rogers-Vickers stated that Mountaire’s spray irrigation is permitted by DNREC, with daily monitoring, monthly reports and periodic DNREC inspections both scheduled and unannounced.

Mr. Burton asked how many unannounced inspections there have been over the last 18 months.

“I would say at least five,” Ms. Rogers-Vickers said.
In addition to litigation filed by Jacobs & Crumplar, Mountaire faces a class action suit also filed in June of 2018 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.

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