Groundwater contamination alleged in class action suit against Mountaire

Attorney Phil Federico addresses the press on the class action lawsuit filed Wednesday against Mountaire.

MILLSBORO – Legal threat became reality Wednesday as law firm collaboration representing more than 700 Millsboro-area residents filed a class action lawsuit against Mountaire Farms of Delaware, claiming the poultry company is the source of widespread groundwater and air contamination.

The lawsuit – filed in Delaware Superior Court by the Delaware law firm of Baird Mandalas and Brockstedt LLC 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.

“The filing this morning was the result of countless hours of investigation and research over the last six months to understand the scope and severity of the contamination caused by Mountaire’s wrongful discharge of its wastewater and sludge, and its air emissions,” said attorney Chase Brockstedt during a press conference at the Millsboro Town Center. “The complaint is bolstered by our experts; we have more a dozen environmental experts and consultants.”

“The conduct on the part of Mountaire for the last 15, 18 years has been egregious. And they need to be held accountable,” said attorney Phil Federico, who is working Mr. Brockstedt on this class action case. “That’s why we spent six months with 12 experts and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get to where we are today, to make sure that we are doing this right.”

The legal action’s intent is to require Mountaire to:

  • Stop polluting the Millsboro area;
  • Overhaul its wastewater treatment plant and discharge process;
  • Provide clean and safe drinking water to affected residents;
  • Remediate the groundwater and clean up its mess;
  • Compensate affected residents for their loss of property values; and
  • Compensate those that are suffering sickness cause by exposure to elevated nitrates, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and other contaminants.

“We believe this began when Mountaire purchased the plant in 2000,” Mr. Brockstedt said. “It’s been getting worse ever since. Obviously, Mountaire was cited by the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) in 2003 and they have been since cited by DNREC two more times. But as the graph in terms of nitrates shows it basically has been increasing since 2003 … 2005.”

In terms of potential damages and compensation, the class action could conceivably escalate into the hundreds of million dollars.

“We’ve got some preliminary figures in terms of what it is going to take for the remediation program, which includes some changes, an overhaul of the wastewater treatment plant, remediating the soil, etc. We don’t have all of our figures right now,” Mr. Brockstedt said. “The preliminary numbers were talking about just for that portion of it is upwards of $150 million. It could be more than that as things develop. Like I said we are waiting on some documents from DNREC. I think that things could potentially change.”

“In terms of what it’s going to take to fairly and adequately compensate our clients for their property value losses as well as for the health effects caused by the chronic exposure to nitrates and air emissions, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, we don’t know at this point in time. It’s too early in the case,” Mr. Brockstedt said. “But we certainly think it’s going to be in the hundreds of millions.”

In a company statement, Mountaire labeled Wednesday’s press conference a publicity stunt.

“In response to a media blitz staged by the law firm of Baird Mandalas Brockstedt and it’s out of state partner, Schochor, Federico & Staton, Mountaire has been asked repeatedly to comment on a lawsuit that we have not seen yet. Because we haven’t been served with this complaint, we are unable to react to it in any detail. However, based on the extensive media reporting to date, and the lawyers’ carefully staged and scripted press conference, we fully anticipate that the complaint will assert claims based on thinly researched and hastily prepared reports by paid ‘experts’ that will collapse under careful scrutiny,” Mountaire’s statement read. “Today’s press conference was a publicity stunt by a group of opportunistic 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 (DNREC). The fact that there are two out of state law firms, partnering with two local law firms, who are attempting to block the remedies in this consent decree, demonstrates the true nature of their motives.”

Mountaire disposes of its waste from its Millsboro processing facility by spray irrigation on more than 900 acres of croplands and sludge disposal through spray and injection application on at least 300 acres of croplands and forests in the Millsboro area, the complaint states.

Highly contaminated wastewater and liquefied sludge has seeped into the groundwater throughout the area, causing nitrates and other contaminants to spread for miles and their concentrations to escalate to dangerously high levels, the complaint alleges.

Dane Bauer, a former deputy director of water management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, shares his expertise.

Among the consultants who spoke for the plaintiffs was Dane Bauer, a former Maryland Department of the Environment official who also served as a consultant for two other Delmarva poultry companies, Perdue and Tyson.

“It only took me about a week and about box-worth of data to figure out, this is really one of the most egregious cases of groundwater contamination I’ve ever seen in my four decades of working,” said Mr. Bauer, adding Mountaire did not “follow basic, industry-accepted standards and practices that are universally accepted across this country for any type of application of treated effluent.”

“You don’t water anything when the rainfall is already sufficient to support the vegetation. Neither do you apply fertilizers when the crop is not growing., when it’s out of season. They are producing 2 million gallons of treated effluent a day and they have no place to put it,” Mr. Bauer said. “So, instead of this being a treatment process, it has become a disposal system.”

The class action was filed nine days after a June 4 consent decree agreement between DNREC and Mountaire was filed in the 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 avoid disruption of work needed to commence under the consent decree.

“In our response to intervene, they accused us of trying to disrupt the regulatory process. I don’t know how they can frankly say that when we are just asking for the ability to voice our opinion on behalf of our 700 clients,” Mr. Brockstedt said. “And when I say our opinion it is really the experts in the field that have the expertise and can offer advice to DNREC as to how they can force Mountaire to act responsibly and clean up its mess and be a good corporate neighbor going forward.”

Mountaire, in its statement issued Wednesday, added, “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 and certainly did not occur just in the past 17 years. We expect to be served a copy of this lawsuit soon and will vigorously defend the allegations in court as well as thoroughly question the alleged experts. We will have further comment once we have had the opportunity to read the complaint in full.”

To view the complaint, click HERE.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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