A Delaware Superior Court judge has approved $65 million in funds as part of a class-action settlement for Millsboro residents affected by groundwater pollution at Mountaire Farms’ Millsboro plant.
Judge Craig Karsnitz approved the settlement April 12 in Georgetown; in total, between Delaware and federal court settlements, Mountaire will have to pay $205 million. Of that, $65 million will go to class members, $120 million will be put toward improvements to the wastewater treatment plant, and $20 million will go for operations and maintenance.
The settlement brings to an end more than three years of litigation. The suit had its start in 2017, when Mountaire’s wastewater treatment plant and spray irrigation system failed. Phil Federico, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said the plant had been building toward such an outcome for years, as Mountaire did not make needed improvements.
Gary Cuppels, now 74, and his wife, Anna-Marie Cuppels, began experiencing gastrointestinal problems. Gary Cuppels said one night, after coming home from dinner at a restaurant, he nearly tripped over two cases of water on his back steps with an envelope attached “from your friends at Mountaire.” He said the enclosed letter advised him that his water was contaminated and that he should not use water from his taps for cooking.
The Cuppels, who owned a business in Rehoboth Beach, ended up in touch with local attorney Chase Brockstedt, who along with Federico, filed a lawsuit. The suit expanded into a class action with thousands of members.
Members of the class have experienced a variety of health issues. Cuppels said he has had to have his gallbladder removed. David Neal said he has had gastrointestinal problems, and his daughter had her gallbladder removed.
Joyce Logan, who lives near the Millsboro plant, said her husband, nephew and dog have all died in the past four years.
“They’ve done a lot of damage,” she said. “Mountaire has impacted my life. Losing what I lost is hard. I cannot get those lives back.”
All three residents said the groundwater problems related to the plant have had negative effects on their property values. In addition, on seven occasions between 2012 and 2018, Mountaire’s wastewater plant was responsible for releasing levels of oxygen sulfide into the atmosphere that exceeded Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control standards.
The attorneys said they hope the improvements to the plant will help correct the drinking water problems and by extension improve property values. Federico said with the plant improvements, the water being sprayed by Mountaire will be cleaner and well within federal drinking water standards.
“The amount of money recovered will help us do something,” Federico said.
Brockstedt said the improvements will go a long way to improving Millsboro and forcing Mountaire to be a good corporate neighbor.
Cuppels said, “In terms of the settlement, it was the best outcome possible. The impact on me and my wife continues on.”
In a statement, Mountaire said construction and operation permits to begin construction of the new plant were issued in January.
Mountaire President Phillip Plylar said, “We are moving ahead with building our new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, which is advancing quickly. We’re ready to put this chapter behind us and forge a new relationship with our neighbors moving forward.”
During the settlement hearing, Mountaire attorney Tim Webster said, “This case has been vigorously contested. We believe our defense is strong. But a settlement is in the best interests of the company and Millsboro citizens.”
Brent Ceryes, co-counsel on the case, said there are 7,000 potential people eligible for a settlement. At this point, 4,000 people have registered to receive funds; attorneys’ fees were set at 2.5 percent. Disbursement of the settlement funds will be overseen by Judge Irma Raker, a retired Maryland Court of Appeals judge with experience in class-action litigation.