Excessive nitrogen concentrations found

Mountaire Farms in Millsboro is attempting to fix environmental violations that occurred earlier this year.

The seventh largest chicken producer in the world, Mountaire was issued a Nov. 2 notice of violation by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Water. It outlined 17 types of violations committed by Mountaire. Many occurred on multiple days and each day is treated as a separate violation.

The problems documented involve Mountaire’s spray irrigation and agricultural utilization permits and land application of treated wastewater.

“There were people who were charged with operating a system and they were not operating it correctly,” said Mountaire Farms of Delaware Communications Director Sean McKeon. “Those employees have been terminated.”

Spray irrigation violations

Mountaire’s DNREC-issued spray irrigation permit allows the company to treat wastewater and spray irrigate about 930 acres of farmland on either side of Route 24 near their Millsboro factory. The permit specifies the amount of treated wastewater to be discharged monthly and its monthly total nitrogen concentration – 15.6 milligrams per liter. In September, nitrogen levels as high as 641 milligrams per liter were recorded.

In soil, nitrogen is converted to nitrate, a combination of nitrogen and oxygen. When there are more nitrates in the soil than plants can absorb, or if there are no plants to absorb the nitrates, they leach into the groundwater. According to Cornell University Cooperative Extension, nitrates are one of the most common groundwater contaminants in rural areas and “are regulated in drinking water primarily because excess levels can cause methemoglobinemia, or ‘blue baby’ disease.”

Excessive nitrogen levels in bodies of water can lead to diminished oxygen levels, a situation harmful and sometimes fatal to aquatic life. Mountaire Farms in Millsboro borders a tributary of the Indian River.

Beyond high nitrogen levels, DNREC found Mountaire was noncompliant with their spray-irrigation permit in terms of fecal coliform concentrations, biochemical oxygen demands and total suspended solids.

So far, no fines have been levied in association with the violations. DNREC is requiring Mountaire to submit plans by Dec. 1 to return to compliance and increase monitoring and reporting of the wastewater.

“We have been implementing corrective measures since the beginning of September,” McKeon said. “The first phase is correcting the immediate problem caused by employees not doing their job. The long-term plan is a complete upgrade to the system.”

McKeon said Mountaire has hired “one of the top poultry wastewater facility engineers in the country,” whom he declined to name, to design a state-of-the-art treatment system.

“It will be the largest and most effective of its kind in the state and will cost between $5 and $10 million,” he said. “On the long term, we’re projecting spending in excess of $25 million.”

Agricultural permit violations

Mountaire’s agricultural utilization permit allows it to land-apply biosolids, or dewatered sewage sludge. DNREC found four violations of that permit, in addition to the 17 spray irrigation permit violations.

According to the notice of violation, Mountaire land-applied biosolids throughout summer 2017 without notifying or submitting a cropping plan to DNREC. Cropping plans ensure the crops planted can absorb the amount of nutrients contained in the sludge applied, but DNREC found that Mountaire failed to plant a crop at all in some cases. Mountaire also did not mark buffer zones as required.

When DNREC inquired about the land application, according to the notice of violation, the Mountaire employee they spoke to was unsure if an over-application of nutrients had occurred, because the employee that oversaw land application had left the company. That employee is not named in the report, and is presumably one of those that was terminated.

Mountaire is required to submit detailed 2017 land application records to DNREC by Nov. 30, and crop rotation and nutrient management plans for the rest of the year and 2018, among other things.

McKeon said Mountaire is committed to resolving its environmental issues.

“We are really going to allocate all necessary resources to fix the problem, in the short term and long term,” he said.