Wastewater from chicken industry highlighted

Sussex County is featured prominently in a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project titled “Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses.”

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s latest study focuses on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data from January 2016 to June 2018 for 98 of the country’s largest meat processing plants. Sixty-five process poultry, and five of those are in Sussex County. Sussex is highlighted as a problem area, along with areas of Florida and Illinois.

“There is a cumulative effect of this many poultry processing plants packed into one county,” Maria Payan states in the report. Payan lives in Selbyville and has long advocated for clean water. “There is just too much waste in one area. The soils can’t handle it, the wells can’t handle it and people’s health can’t handle it.”

The EIP report notes that four of five Sussex chicken processing plants have received environmental violations in the past four years.

• Allen Harim, 18752 Harbeson Road, Harbeson: “Received a notice from the state in November 2016 for more than 90 Clean Water Act violations over four years, including dumping illegal amounts of ammonia, phosphorus, nitrogen and fecal bacteria into Beaverdam Creek, which empties into the Broadkill River. One day in June 2013, the discharge from the plant contained more than 9,000 times the permitted level of enterococcus bacteria, according to the notice. The state followed the notice with a proposed $241,000 fine in March 2018.”

• Mountaire Farms, 55 Railroad Avenue, Selbyville: “Has been in violation of the Clean Water Act every quarter for at least the last three years, according to EPA’s online enforcement database. The plant’s effluent had 1,400 times permitted levels of enterococci bacteria in the third quarter of 2017, plus violations for oil and grease and waste solids. State officials, however, issued only one violation notice to the plant during this period, on September 29, 2015.”

• Perdue Farms, 20621 Savannah Road, Georgetown: “Received a Clean Water Act violation notice from the state in September 2015 for discharging nearly eight times the amount of nitrogen its permit allows on a monthly basis and also exceeding its monthly enterococci bacteria limit.”

• Mountaire Farms, 29106 John J. Williams Highway, Millsboro: “Received a November 2017 violation notice for exceeding the permit limits in its spray irrigation waste system. The plant was spraying wastewater with as much as seven times the permitted limits of ammonia in 2016 and 9,000 times permitted limits of enterococcus bacteria in 2013, according to the violation notice.”

According to the report, slaughterhouses usually dispose of treated wastewater in three ways: dumping it in waterways, spraying it on farmland or sending it to a municipal treatment plant. In Sussex, chicken processing wastewater is commonly disposed of in a waterway or by land application. For example, the Allen Harim processing plant in Harbeson dumps treated wastewater into Beaverdam Creek, which leads to the Broadkill River. In Millsboro, Mountaire disposes of its treated wastewater by spraying it onto farm fields, above the aquifers from which wells draw their water.

If not properly treated, that wastewater can have devastating environmental effects and is detrimental to human health. Drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrates can cause human blood’s ability to carry oxygen to tissues to decrease, leading to low blood pressure, increased heart rate, headaches, abdominal cramps, vomiting and death.

Treating wastewater can be costly, but according to the EIP, money isn’t an issue for the companies featured in their report. Mountaire, for example, brings in over $2 billion per year.

“These are very large national corporations. We’re not talking about the butcher on the corner,” said EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer. “These are big companies with lots of money that can be used to fix these problems.”

The issues with drinking water in Sussex have involved Mountaire in two lawsuits, with almost 800 complainants total. Millsboro residents claim Mountaire’s pollution has caused serious ailments and, in one case, death. Mountaire points to historically elevated nitrate levels in area groundwater, beginning prior to the company’s arrival in Millsboro.

The lawsuits allege, however, that since Mountaire began spraying treated wastewater in Millsboro, nitrate levels uphill of the spray fields have gone down, while downhill, they’ve gone up. Earlier this year, DNREC proposed a $625,000 fine against the company, but allows Mountaire to continue to operate in violation of its permits.

“Full permit compliance is not expected to be consistently achieved until Mountaire completes a planned long-term wastewater treatment plant upgrade,” DNREC said in an official statement.

According to the EIP report, to stop water pollution caused by slaughterhouses, better control by and higher monetary penalties from agencies like DNREC and the EPA are necessary.

“How about enforcing the law?” said Schaeffer. “To get companies to take requirements seriously we have to hit them with serious penalties that are large enough to get their attention. These shareholders focus relentlessly on the bottom line. What they need is to see that ignoring the Clean Water Act will cost them money.”