Wrongful death alleged
For the second time in less than a month, Millsboro-area citizens are seeking legal relief against chicken industry giant Mountaire Farms.
A total of 99 plaintiffs have filed in Delaware Superior Court, represented by personal injury firm Jacobs & Crumplar P.A. The legal firm Baird Mandalas Brockstedt LLC, also recently filed a suit on behalf of hundreds of clients in a class action.
Both lawsuits required filing a motion to intervene in the consent decree between the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Mountaire. The June 4 agreement requires Mountaire to pay penalties, but no compensation for the victims of the company’s alleged environmental negligence.
Thomas Crumplar, a founding partner of Jacobs & Crumplar, has had successes in personal injury lawsuits. In 1988 he obtained the second highest injury verdict in U.S. history for an asbestos case, $75 million.
“We’ve dealt with a significant number of environmental personal injury cases,” Crumplar said. “We hope the court will allow us to move forward.”
The clients’ main concerns revolve around nitrates.
Mountaire’s chicken processing plant produces wastewater that includes feces, blood and other solids. These contain large amounts of nitrogen, which can be brought down to acceptable levels when successfully treated and land-applied onto crops. Those levels are specified in state and federal permits.
However, insufficiently treated wastewater, when land-applied, allows nitrates to leach into the groundwater and to be consumed by humans through drinking water wells. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to excessive levels of nitrates can lead to adverse reproductive effects and some cancers. Pregnant women and infants are most at risk.
Mountaire acquired the Millsboro factory in 2000 and has since been cited for nitrate level violations multiple times. In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Mountaire’s operations caused or contributed to nitrate contamination in area aquifers from which drinking water is drawn. In 2009, DNREC found that Mountaire over-applied nitrogen through spray irrigation at a rate more than three times the permit limit.
Mountaire was found to have violated DNREC spray irrigation and agricultural utilization permits in 2015 and 2016, but the consent decree addresses only one particularly egregious period during summer 2017. During that time, Mountaire frequently sprayed visibly thick, dark, untreated wastewater sludge onto fields. That, DNREC said, led to chemicals leaching into the groundwater and contaminating nearby residents’ drinking water wells.
Jacobs & Crumplar’s lawsuit cites the impact of Mountaire’s nitrate disposal levels on clients’ wells and therefore health and property values. The plaintiffs claim serious health issues, including bacterial infections, gastrointestinal illnesses and miscarriages, have been caused by Mountaire’s negligence.
The consent decree requires Mountaire to pay $600,000 in penalties and make substantial wastewater treatment upgrades, but DNREC admits that full compliance with environmental regulations is not expected at the factory for several years – meaning wells will continue to be affected.
“We don’t think [the consent decree] protects the interest of our clients,” Crumplar said.
A court decision on whether either lawsuit may intervene in the consent decree is expected around October. If not, Jacobs & Crumplar will move forward with a lawsuit based solely on past damages.
Odor concerns many of Jacobs & Crumplar’s clients.
“The foul and offensive odors and dust have impacted the Plaintiffs’ ability to use and enjoy their land, including preventing them from enjoying the outdoors, taking walks and other outdoor and indoor recreation,” court documents state.
Jay and Cheryl Meyer, 72 and 71 respectively, own two properties on Possum Point Road in Millsboro, just across the Indian River from Mountaire.
“I know chicken smell. I grew up here. This is not chicken smell,” Jay Meyer said. “If you smelled it you’d be throwing up, that’s how bad it is. Even with the windows shut it seeps into your house.”
According to Meyer, as often as weekly his property is inundated by a foul odor that irritates his nose, throat and eyes and forces him indoors. He believes the smell is from the Mountaire water treatment plant, and frequently complains to DNREC.
“My research determined that hydrogen sulfide is what we’re smelling,” he said. “Exposure to low concentrations can cause permanent health effects.” Hydrogen sulfide is the “rotten egg” smell.
Meyer said the odor means he can’t enjoy his riverfront property with a pier, a pool and a patio. He says his property value has diminished.
“We thought about selling, but who would want it?” he said.
Other clients allege serious health problems, including a wrongful death.
Plaintiff Gina Burton lives on Herbert Lane, directly adjacent to one of Mountaire’s spray irrigation fields. Her son, Kiwanis Burton, died at 24 years old after an acute asthma attack. The lawsuit claims Mountaire’s foul and offensive odors, airborne contaminants and dust caused his death. Many other plaintiffs complain of respiratory illnesses brought on by the spray irrigation fields.
Several plaintiffs cite miscarriages; one cites congenital birth defects and cognitive impairment in her children. Another man had to have a portion of his intestine removed - all allegedly due to Mountaire’s negligence.
“It’s not an easy case," Crumplar said. "But our clients’ damages are quite significant: birth defects, amputations, and we have a death case."