Gina Burton’s grandfather, Herbert, worked tirelessly as a sharecropper in southern Delaware. Through the years, he built his savings and purchased a large tract of land. The plan was to sell some of it for a profit, but keep enough to leave his children and grandchildren parcels that they could live on, prosper from, and enjoy together as family. At first, the plan worked just as he imagined. He sold a portion of his land along the Indian River to Townsend, Inc., a smaller poultry plant. Then he divided up the rest of the land and passed it down through his family members. He passed away with the sense of accomplishment of having done something worthwhile to protect his family’s future. The lane separating Burton’s family properties from Mountaire’s fields is in fact named after Gina’s grandfather — ”Herbert Lane.”
What Herbert didn’t know was that Townsend, Inc. would sell the land to Mountaire, which in 2000 moved in across the lane from where his grandchildren and great grandchildren live, and expanded the operations to volumes that were unsafe for the surrounding families. He didn’t know that what would follow was toxic spraying in the air surrounding their houses, and that high-volume chicken waste would leach into their groundwater, or that many in his family would fall ill, and in the case of his great-grandson (Gina’s son) die from asthma complications. Gina’s grandfather toiled for years, and Mountaire’s carelessness has threatened to turn his legacy into a curse. But Gina won’t let the story end there, and with Food & Water Watch’s help, she plans to force the company to do right by their community.
Gina is a fighter. She works for the Delaware Department of Corrections. When asked why she spends her free time working to expose Mountaire’s bad practices and the damage it’s caused her family, there are many answers. Her son’s tragic death in 2014 from an acute asthma attack is obviously her number one reason. Her family’s many health tragedies, like her Aunt Martha’s loss of her legs, her mother’s colitis, and her sister’s many tumors and strange black spots all over her back are another. Gina herself also suffers from gastrointestinal issues. Other area families wonder whether their strange health issues and the deaths of their family pets could be because of Mountaire’s contamination of their air and water.
Beyond the immediate effects her family has suffered, Gina also has a deep sense of duty to hold the company accountable for doing wrong to so many, and she speaks with passion about why:
“It's about people doing people wrong. If you know you're harming somebody and you know it's not right, then I mean that's a cause or reason to fight.”
Mountaire, a poultry processing facility in Millsboro, Delaware, produces 2.4 million gallons of chicken waste each day. The waste – comprised of manure, feathers, carcasses, organs, blood, dirt and massive amounts of wastewater – is stored in lagoons and sprayed onto nearby disposal fields that are right across the lane from where Gina Burton’s mother, sisters, nieces, nephews, Aunt Martha, and other family all live on the land that her grandfather provided for them. Gina recounts a recent story about someone being curious about what was being sprayed over those fields:
“One day we came home from church on a Sunday and somebody had taken the end off the sprayer and it was straight green solids coming out — turds coming out… It was within feet of my mother’s front yard.”
The groundwater aquifer below the plant is the sole source of drinking water for the surrounding community — and tests have shown contamination since at least the year 2000. Interestingly, Mountaire Farms was the fifth-largest contributor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — arguably an investment in the government’s continued inaction in addressing the undeniable contamination coming from the company.
In the face of that kind of financial and political power, Gina says that Food & Water Watch has been instrumental in helping her fight back and defend her grandfather’s legacy. An outcome is pending on a motion they’ve filed against the corporation, and Gina credits the boost in her fight to teaming up with the Food & Water Justice legal team:
“Food & Water Watch are more experienced... They had the resources, they knew the legal aspects of it. They had contacts. I went to school for criminal justice but I did it on a law enforcement aspect, not an environmental aspect. You need to connect with people who are more experienced.”
Mountaire has been able to dominate the media coverage through strategic advertising and donations to community causes, something that Gina says would be difficult to combat if she were fighting them without the help of Food & Water Watch.
Whether it’s community meetings, press conferences, educational outreach, or exploring legal options, Gina works night and day to try to make her grandfather’s legacy right again. She knows how hard he worked to achieve the American dream, and she works just as hard to defend it. Mountaire is clearly in the wrong, but Gina is an extraordinary hero for fighting for her community and a champion to inspire us all to fight even harder, too.
What Mountaire is doing in Delaware isn’t isolated. Slaughterhouses, which are only one link in the polluting industrial meat production chain, are ruining family lands all over America, and poisoning people who have a basic human right to clean air and water in their homes. Chip in to help us support not only Gina, but other fighters like her taking on corporations who think they’re too big to be reigned in.