Delaware and Mountaire Farms Settle Groundwater Contamination Suit

A magistrate judge in Wilmington, Delaware entered a consent decree proposed by Mountaire Farms of Delaware Inc. and the State of Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) on Monday. The District of Delaware’s opinion considered whether the agreement, reached in connection with violations of federal environmental laws after the chicken processor experienced a water treatment system failure in 2017, was fair, adequate, reasonable, and in line with congressional objectives.   

The opinion stated that the defendant operates a chicken processing plant in Millsboro, Delaware. As part of its operations, the plant generates wastewater that is ordinarily treated before discharge. In 2017, one of Mountaire’s wastewater treatment systems failed and consequently sprayed untreated water with high nitrate concentrations onto nearby fields. The judge explained that nitrates percolate into groundwater, and at high concentrations, render it unsafe for drinking.

DNREC filed suit over the incident in 2018, and the parties reached a proposed agreement in August 2020. A couple living nearby the plant intervened in the proceedings and initially opposed entry of the parties’ first amended consent decree, but later withdrew their objections.

In deciding whether to enter the consent decree, the court reportedly reviewed hundreds of pages of information and expert reports and held a full-day hearing. The opinion stated that ultimately, the proposed agreement met “the applicable legal requirements for entry.” 

The court determined that it was negotiated and agreed upon in good faith. It also allegedly considered and incorporated public comment and the intervenors’ objections. The opinion noted that although the consent decree gives Mountaire time to comply, it still requires the chicken processor to conform to the law and mitigate the alleged harm caused by its past conduct.

DNREC is represented by the Delaware Department of State, and Mountaire by Baird Mandalas Brockstedt LLC, Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze P.A., and Sidley Austin LLP.