For many people on the east coast, Millsboro, Delaware is one of the tiny communities on the way to the beach resorts near the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The drive to the boardwalks at Rehoboth and Bethany Beaches is lined with what appear to be idyllic fields of corn, soybeans and other vegetable crops. But for years, the families living in and around Millsboro were suffering an unimaginable threat in silence.
Millsboro also happens to be the home of a chicken processing plant owned by Mountaire Farms, one of the largest poultry processing companies in a state where chickens rival banks for political power and influence. Mountaire moved into Millsboro promising to bring good jobs and be good neighbors. Instead, they brought polluted air and dirty drinking water.
The crops on the fields in Millsboro aren’t exactly watered in the traditional way you or I think of watering our gardens. They’re watered with the waste produced by the chicken processing house, where millions of chickens are slaughtered each year. The huge spray machines that roll through those fields are drenching the ground with a rain of blood, feces, feathers and other by-products of slaughtered carcasses. And that spray is seeping into the local aquifer that Millsboro residents rely on for their drinking water.
Just how contaminated is it? A significant number of wells in the nearby community have routinely tested positive for nitrate contamination at levels deemed unsafe by state regulators, and reaching levels proven to increase the risk of serious health problems, including “blue baby syndrome,” some forms of cancer and autoimmune dysfunction. This has been going on since at least 2000.
Gina Burton, who lives across the street from the facility – which was built on land purchased from her grandfather – said her family has suffered horrible health in recent years, including the loss of her young son to asthma. “Our family is invested in this community,” she said, “and we welcomed Mountaire thinking they’d be a good neighbor. Our land is the reason they could build this huge facility.”
Instead, Mountaire repaid the community for its kindness by slowly poisoning its water.
After years of broken promises from Mountaire and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, neighbors in Millsboro decided to fight back. With the help of organizations like the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, neighbors talked to neighbors and, pretty soon, the entire Millsboro community was mobilized, determined and ready to speak out. They reached out to our organization, Public Justice, after learning about our work fighting similar pollution from dairy farms in Yakima Valley, Washington. We worked with them – along with our allies at Food & Water Watch – to put Mountaire on notice: If the company didn’t take action to fix what was happening, we would sue under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), just as we did in Yakima, and force them to clean up their act.
Then, something powerful happened.
After Gina and her neighbors told their story to USA Today and other media outlets, state and federal lawmakers started to take notice. And, despite the political leverage the poultry lobby holds in Delaware, they spoke out for the citizens of Millsboro and their right to clean water. Suddenly, the community was neither alone nor silent. And they had the attention of some of the most important decision makers in Delaware.
Then, earlier this week, the residents’ efforts came full circle: The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) announced it had entered into an agreement with Mountaire to provide clean drinking water to the community, build a state-of-the-art treatment plant to deal with the plant’s waste and to ensure third-party monitoring of ground water and spray fields to ensure proper compliance with the law. In short, much of what the citizens of Millsboro were seeking in their lawsuit.
Suddenly, the people in the tiny town of Millsboro were politically powerful and taking on one of Delaware’s largest industries . . . and they were winning. Because though DNREC is a state agency, the state did not act on its own - it took action because the communities in and around Millsboro spoke up, spoke out in the press and insisted on accountability.
The communities impacted by Mountaire’s operations are empowered, organized and insisting on change. Mountaire’s agreement to take any action at all is a direct result of their mobilization, determination and advocacy. It is a stunning reminder of how communities can come together, find their voice, build their power and take on even the most well-moneyed industries in America.
Now, it is time for Mountaire to do something. For years, the company has said nice things about its intention to do right by its neighbors, all the while polluting the air and water those same neighbors breathe and drink. The community, and allies like Public Justice and Food & Water Watch, will be paying close attention to make sure Mountaire’s words translate into action.
The people of Millsboro have built formidable alliances with state and federal lawmakers, and national advocacy and watchdog groups, and they will not return to the days of being ignored or silenced. If the company doesn’t clean up its act, this newly energized coalition will take action again . . . and it has now shown just how effective it can be.
This post was co-authored by Public Justice Food Project Attorney Jessica Culpepper.
Image via MdAgDept on Flickr