Corporate Greed is Poisoning Delaware’s Water

Clean drinking water is a basic requirement for human life. We are each, after all, made up of mostly water, and we are each born with a right to drink and breathe without fear of death. Yet today, in Sussex County and across the country, our officials are failing to ensure corporations do not pollute the water we drink and the air that we breathe. Unclean water defiles our faucets and the baths of our children, cursing infants with birth defects and families to lifelong disease. Our expectations are that our water, our air, and all the fundamental building blocks of life on our planet can be consumed and used without fear of death, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, or other deadly byproducts of corporate greed and political corruption. Anything less than such a guarantee is an assault on our basic humanity.

This photo was taken from the front yard of a private residence. In the distance, you can see Mountaire Farm, who planted this row of shrubs in an attempt to set up a barrier between the farm and the family who lives nearby. This is the second round of shrubs that have been planted this year; the first, planted in early spring, died within weeks.

I was shocked by the appalling stories I heard about contaminated water and air and their debilitating effects on Sussex County residents at a recent Clean Water Forum in Millsboro. The situation in some parts of Sussex County is an environmental disaster and a public health epidemic that requires immediate action by the Governor and county authorities. We must call on the Federal government to work with communities and partners to supply residents with access to clean water — whether by providing alternative sources or by moving the residents to safer areas as we decontaminate our watersheds.

On July 16, I visited a family who has lived on the same plot of land for generations, whose lives have been turned upside down by health concerns such as hair loss and respiratory illness as a direct result of careless pollution from their neighboring chicken farm.

Sussex residents described the rampant suffering they have undergone as a result of drinking, cooking, and showering in water unfit for human consumption. Substantial research shows exposure to this type of water will cause lifelong problems for these residents and for their children. What is happening here is a massive environmental crime with intergenerational consequences.

The good people of Millsboro and the surrounding communities have simply been fighting for clean water for decades. These families have already lost loved ones and seen life-threatening harm from deadly chemicals dumped — far in excess of permitted levels. Our justice system has failed these families, who every day continue to be exposed to and suffer from the effects of deadly toxins. Every person inhales around 23,000 breaths every day; we each use about 100 gallons of water per day. Every breath of air or sip of water should not make us and our children increasingly ill all while corporations enjoy windfall profits. Corporations should take advantage of Delaware’s laws, not its people; these companies are exploiting both, and their dirty water is killing our communities.

In some cases, contamination has been caused by the spraying of chemically treated wastewater from chicken processing plants on crops in areas of Sussex County, with up to 5 times the permissible level of chemicals pouring into our watersheds. Put another way, the chemicals used to clean chicken waste are being dumped into our water supply. These companies are literally poisoning us. People are dying, suffering from degenerative illnesses, and calling out for help to anyone who will listen — inexcusably, to date their audience has not included their representation in government.

There are some concrete steps that must be taken without any further delay. I call upon Governor Carney, pursuant to Title 20 of the Delaware Code, to declare a public health emergency in Sussex County and qualifying communities, and on the Director of Public Health to declare an epidemic until the contaminated water crisis can be resolved. I further call upon the Governor to request federal disaster assistance to make emergency management resources available to Delaware. The Governor or his designee at the Department of Health and Social Services and Delaware Emergency Management Agency may then deploy these resources to allow immediate remediation related to contaminated water and air which daily pose health and safety threats to residents of Sussex County.

The current situation is this: Because of inadequate funding and capacity, polluters have been able to hold the inspections agency hostage — indeed, these companies frequently conduct their own inspections. Not surprisingly, they have continued to violate laws and Consent Orders on permissible levels of hazardous chemical disposal into the ground and the air. There is tremendous damage to the state — the people of Sussex are dying, and the total downstream costs of this ongoing disaster are exorbitant. We have a moral obligation to act.

I call on the Carney Administration to declare the toxic water situation in affected communities to be a public health epidemic. We must also work with federal authorities and local actors to bring immediate relief to the people of Sussex and other impacted communities by providing them access to clean water and relocating them, if need be.

I will vigorously prosecute all perpetrators of environmental crimes to the fullest extent of the law. No one should be above the law — not corporate CEOs, heads of government agencies or other state employees who knew or should have known about egregious conduct on the part of polluters, including continuing patterns of non-compliance with any aspect of numerous Consent Orders.

I will file civil and administrative actions against polluters and seek injunctions that take repeat violations into account. I will aggressively enforce civil and administrative penalties against the current group of abusers, and will seek maximum penalties and restitution for the people of Delaware. Finally, where appropriate, I will seek injunctions preventing further operation by repeat bad actors — companies that are negligent or who engage in willful misconduct by continuing to poison our communities will no longer be tolerated or allowed to continue their toxic operations.

I will institute a comprehensive investigation of the historical problem of groundwater contamination and air pollution by polluters who have created a human-made emergency that today threatens the very lives of people in Sussex County. I will liaise with other state agencies, employees of which have institutional and operational knowledge of the history, remediation efforts and failures and compliance with any state or federal regulations and/or Consent Orders already in force.

I will take the lead in creating a national coalition of State Attorneys General to bring polluters of our water and our air to justice. After years of research and effort, we were finally able to start holding tobacco companies accountable with a master settlement agreement that has demonstrably reduced smoking rates, especially amongst the most vulnerable — children. That case was filed to recover increased healthcare costs resulting from cigarettes. Well, our water is unfit to drink— and we need water much more than we do cigarettes. There has been a fundamental betrayal of the public trust, causing increases to Delaware’s healthcare costs and killing our loved ones. It is well past time to bring the wrongdoers to justice.

We have a moral obligation to act.