Photo by Justin Heyes
A southern poultry plant is ordered to pay millions in damages to Delaware residents impacted by its hazardous disposal practices.
Christina Caliguire and her wife, Mary, left New York seeking a happier, more peaceful life for their two young children. The house they bought in Millsboro sits on a three-quarter-acre lot with an expansive backyard framed by a white fence and bordered by tall trees. The couple closed on the house in October 2017 knowing that behind the tree barrier lay something called a “spray field”—two words that sounded benign at the time.
Their first hint of trouble was a mysterious odor that sometimes forced them to stay inside. “It was vile,” Caliguire recalls. “It smelled like death.”
The field behind their home was one of several that Mountaire Farms used to dispose of wastewater and sludge from its Millsboro and Selbyville poultry processing plants. The smell was just the most obvious sign, according to court documents, of improper disposal practices that spanned two decades, resulting in high levels of nitrates and other pollutants seeping into the groundwater and contaminating private residential wells in Millsboro—posing a health risk to the Caliguires and thousands of their neighbors.
Mountaire has denied that it polluted the air or water, but under agreements finalized last spring, the company will spend $205 million related to its disposal practices. That includes $65 million to settle a class action suit filed by residents who say their health and property values were harmed by Mountaire. A separate but related consent decree with the State of Delaware requires the company to spend $120 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility and another $20 million to maintain safe practices.
The settlement raises the promise of a new era for Millsboro residents, who look forward to a time when they can trust in the quality of their air and water. But while they see it as a victory, the settlement doesn’t erase the damage they’ve suffered. They are haunted by the possibility that Mountaire’s unsafe practices caused or contributed to the deaths of loved ones, as well as their own ongoing health problems. They worry about their property values. They feel betrayed by Mountaire and by state regulators they say failed to protect them from corporate greed. The sense of safety they once took for granted has been shattered.
“My main concern is my children,” Caliguire says. “And as far as I’m concerned, they were put at risk because we made the decision that we wanted to give them a better life.”
Mountaire officials did not respond to requests for an interview, but last spring, the company issued a written statement: “While Mountaire does not believe it caused any damage to any of the plaintiffs, it chose to settle the case in order to achieve a final resolution and allow construction of a new wastewater treatment to proceed.”
Progress on a new wastewater treatment facility is moving along on schedule, and Mountaire is taking action to remediate existing nitrate in the spray fields, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). Still, it will be years before the groundwater meets safe drinking standards. In the meantime, Mountaire is supplying bottled water and filtration to the affected areas and working with the town of Millsboro on options to bring public water to the area.
The landmark $205 million settlement—believed to be the largest ever related to groundwater nitrate contamination—was the culmination of a three-year legal battle led by two attorneys: Delaware native Chase Brockstedt, a civil litigation lawyer based in Lewes, and co-counsel Philip Federico, from Baltimore.
The battle began in December 2017, when Gary Cuppels returned to his waterfront home on the Indian River one evening and tripped on a pallet of water bottles that had been left on his porch. A note attached said the water was courtesy of Mountaire Farms. Through his long career as an engineer, Cuppels, now in his 70s, was familiar with the effects of hazardous waste and contaminated water supplies. He and his wife, Anna-Marie, had been suffering serious gastrointestinal issues, even after they both had their gallbladders removed. It wasn’t hard to make the connection.
“It was crystal clear to me where we were going with this,” Cuppels says. “I’d seen this dance before but had never been the victim.”
He’d done business with one of the partners at Baird Mandalas Brockstedt, so he called the firm and was connected to Brockstedt, who went to visit Cuppels later that day. After hearing about the Cuppels’ ongoing health problems, Brockstedt said he didn’t sleep much that night.
“What kept me up was two things: This is a big problem; how do I get my arms wrapped around it? And this is a family that is suffering; what can I do about it?”
Following some preliminary research, he called Federico. The two had become friends while working on multiple cases together, and Federico had more mass tort experience. The two might not seem like the most obvious choice to take on a complex environmental case against Mountaire Farms, the fourth-largest chicken producer in the United States. While no strangers to big cases, neither was experienced in environmental litigation.
“This was a Delaware case—and these are Delaware people,” Brockstedt points out. “They live 20 minutes from my home. There was no part of me that said, ‘I want to refer this out.’ There was a part of me that said, ‘I’m going to need experts and scientists and engineers, and I’m going to have to build the best team I possibly can.’”
That team included James G. Dahlgren, M.D., a medical consultant for plaintiffs in the 1990s groundwater contamination case that made Erin Brockovich famous. (Comparisons to the two cases are impossible to avoid; that $333 million settlement involved hexavalent chromium).
Dahlgren conducted a health survey of 249 people living in the area with elevated levels of nitrates found in the wells. The plaintiffs reported greater incidences of ailments tied to nitrate exposure—including gastrointestinal, reproductive, musculoskeletal and immunologic problems—compared to control groups. In addition, Dahlgren reported finding “a very significant increase in cancers” among the respondents, and a higher incidence of birth defects compared to the national average.
Dahlgren’s report also references “higher than normal” incidences of problems related to elevated levels of air exposure to hydrogen sulfide. They include asthma, headaches, sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, and eye and throat irritation.
Behind the statistics are people like Joyce Logan, a plaintiff in the suit who lost her husband, her 54-year-old nephew who lived with her, and her dog to illness in recent years.
Logan wistfully recalls how every year her husband insisted on making a big deal over her birthday, December 23. There were presents, parties. Then he got sick. He suffered from stomach, lung and prostate cancer by the time he died in December 2015.
“After that, I didn’t even think about birthdays or Christmas,” Logan says. “All of that was lost.” The couple was married for 43 years.
On Walt Carmean Lane, David and Linda Neal inventoried the illnesses they and family members have experienced in recent years. Linda Neal has migraines and stomach pains from a noncancerous mass on her liver. Their daughter suffered multiple health problems during her pregnancy in 2016 and later had her gallbladder removed. Neal’s oldest brother died from cancer in 2016. Another brother’s wife also died from cancer a few years ago.
Unsafe water in the neighborhood posed a threat to the entire family, immediate and extended. Linda Neal’s family settled there over 100 years ago—the street is named for her grandfather, Walt Carmean—and their descendants have filled the homes on the street ever since. She ticked off a list of past and present owners of the houses: her grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.
“We’re not sure if all the nitrates contributed to my brother dying, because we weren’t getting bottled water back then,” says Neal, a soft-spoken woman who clearly does not relish making accusations. “I mean, I don’t know if that affected him. I don’t know.”
She sits next to her husband in their tidy living room, surrounded by dozens of framed family photos. Two colorful plastic bins filled with toys wait for the next morning’s return of the three children—two great-grandchildren and one grandchild, all under 5—that Linda babysits on weekdays.
“I’d like to get to the point of not having to worry about the grandkids coming in and getting infected by something they drink or eat,” she says. “It’s just, it’s scary.”
Problems with Mountaire’s wastewater treatment and disposal practices came to public attention after the system malfunctioned in August 2017. Mountaire called it an “upset” and fired multiple employees it held responsible.
But that “upset” was in reality the inevitable result of mismanagement that allowed sludge to build up in the treatment units for years, according to the class action lawsuit. What’s more, the company had been polluting the air, soil and water since 2000, when the Millsboro facilities were acquired, the suit contends. Court papers detail how poultry production increased while no upgrading of the antiquated wastewater treatment facilities was made, repeatedly spraying wastewater that exceeding state standards for nitrates. In 2011, Mountaire also began processing wastewater from its Selbyville plant.
While battling Mountaire, Brockstedt and Federico were simultaneously taking on DNREC, which they contended had been too lenient on the company, despite a pattern of violations. A 2018 agreement between the agency and the poultry processor was “the culmination of [DNREC’s] effort to negotiate a politically expedient settlement with Mountaire at the expense of the citizens the federal and Delaware laws are designed to protect,” the lawyers said in a scathing objection to the agreement filed in court.
In 2019, over DNREC’s objections, the court granted Brockstedt and Federico, on behalf of their clients, “intervenor” status in negotiations between the state agency and Mountaire. The resulting consent decree—in which Mountaire will spend $140 million on its wastewater treatment system—requires a dramatically greater investment than what DNREC had asked for.
DNREC responded to a request for comment by sending a written response detailing its efforts to hold Mountaire “accountable for violations from the wastewater release and to require remediation to the environment for the release, as well as require a major upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant that would provide consistent and improved treatment of the wastewater output, and other measures to mitigate the groundwater contamination well into the future.”
I wasn’t out to get the money. We wanted the air quality to be better, the water to be better. We just wanted things to go back like they used to be.
While the consent decree aims to prevent future harm, the class action settlement provides some measure of compensation for what already has been lost. The court has appointed retired Judge Irma Raker to divide the funds according to how much each plaintiff has been harmed. Plaintiffs expressed gratitude to Brockstedt and Federico for forcing Mountaire to change its ways. The money, they say, is beside the point.
“Just how much of a check are you sending me for obliterating my property value, getting me sick as hell and putting me through all of this legal bullshit?” Cuppels says. “It could be $100 million. First off, I wouldn’t live long enough to spend it. Secondly, it’s a poor exchange.”
“I wasn’t out to get the money,” says David Neal. “We wanted the air quality to be better, the water to be better. We just wanted things to go back like they used to be.”