An environmental game of chicken

How much should an industry -- one that produces about 1 billion pounds of waste a year but is also an economic and political force on the Eastern Shore -- be regulated?

By Tom Pelton
Sun reporter
October 14, 2007

Twelve-day-old chickens move about in one of Gary Pilchard's massive chicken houses in Pocomoke City. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin / August 22, 2007)


The chickens that Willis Redden raises in steel buildings longer than Navy destroyers produce at least 2 million pounds of manure a year. That's as much as a city of 25,000 people produces.

Redden, a fourth-generation farmer, spreads the litter on corn and soybean fields near a sandy creek that flows into the Pocomoke River and then the Chesapeake Bay. But no one ever comes to check whether the manure is getting into the stream - even though scientists say chickens are responsible for 10 percent of the pollution running into the bay from Maryland.

As concerns about water pollution from the poultry industry have grown, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and at least nine other states have begun requiring large chicken farms to get the same kind of pollution control permits as factories. Animal feeding operations with these permits are inspected once a year, must follow a long list of waste management rules, and face fines of up to $32,500 per violation per day for allowing manure into streams.

Maryland requires these permits for dairy and hog farms - but not poultry. The raising of chickens was exempted when Maryland's regulations were written more than a decade ago. The poultry industry has since defeated two attempts to require more oversight and liability for pollution.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration says it plans to draft regulations that would for the first time require permits for large chicken farms and inspections by the Maryland Department of the Environment. But the administration has offered few specifics. And the industry has made clear that it will oppose industrial-style pollution regulations, arguing that farms don't pollute as factories do.

"The poultry industry has been flying under the radar screen. And Maryland is completely abdicating its responsibility to enforce the federal Clean Water Act," said Michele Merkel, a former Environmental Protection Agency attorney now with the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.

How much regulation? At issue is how much to regulate an industry that produces about 1 billion pounds of waste a year but is also an economic and political force on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Perdue Farms, the largest chicken company in the East, is based in Salisbury. Also, the industry employs about 16,000 people on the Delmarva Peninsula, annually selling 567 million chickens worth about $1.6 billion, records show.

Farmers who raise chickens in Maryland - as well as grain and vegetable growers who use poultry litter as fertilizer - receive minimal, if any, oversight from the state.

A Maryland law passed in 1998 requires the owners of large farms to have "nutrient management plans" designed to prevent pollution by minimizing the amount of fertilizer spread on crops.

Chicken farmers - who tend to dispose of their manure by putting it on fields or giving it to other farmers - must report to the state how many chickens they have, how much manure is produced and where that fertilizer is spread.

The state has recommendations for how a poultry operation should limit runoff into streams, but not requirements.

The agency responsible for making sure farmers have fertilizer plans is the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which has its primary mission helping farmers, not the Department of the Environment, which is charged with enforcing pollution laws.

Nutrient plansSue duPont, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the agency is trying to check up on about 10 percent of the state's 6,273 large farms this year to make sure they have their required paperwork. Two farmers have been fined $350 - the maximum penalty under the law - for not having nutrient plans. These state visits are announced in advance and do not include sampling of fields, manure piles or nearby streams to see if pollution is escaping, she acknowledged.

Poultry companies say this oversight is enough. "When we look at the state regulations in place, they are sufficient ... to protect the environment," said Julie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Perdue Farms.

Farmers argue that fines of up to $32,500 and annual inspections by the pollution police at the state's environmental agency would be overkill. Some also object to the more rigorous rules in factory-style permits, such as the mandate that they allow "zero discharge" to streams, avoid outdoor storage of manure, limit offensive odors, allow state sampling of groundwater, report spills and expose their records to public scrutiny.

Unlike chicken farms in Maryland today, animal feeding operations with these permits could be hauled into court by neighbors or environmental groups if they fail to follow the rules. And they would be subject to public hearings before they opened or expanded.

Redden, who has 150,000 chickens in six windowless houses east of Pocomoke City, says the fertilizer plans required under current state law are enough.

The law was passed after farm pollution was suspected of causing an explosion of toxic algae called Pfiesteria in 1997 that was blamed for the deaths of millions of fish and short-term memory loss in more than a dozen people.

"Ever since the Pfiesteria outbreak on the Pocomoke River 10 years ago, a lot of heat has come down on us," said Redden, 47. "There were a lot of new laws put in place, and I think the majority of farmers are now very cautious about their manure management."

Gary Pilchard, 42, who lives nearby, said the proposal to require industrial permits and inspections by the MDE would be "heavy-handed" and fails to recognize the vital role played by poultry farmers.

"I produce about a million chickens a year, and I figure that feeds about 4 million people - that's a lot of responsibility," Pilchard said.

He showed a visitor one of his 560-foot-long chicken houses, tugging open the door of the darkened building. Startled by the light, 34,300 chicks fluttered in a fuzzy mob across a floor of wood shavings. Stepping outside, he described the steps that he already takes to prevent rain from washing manure into a nearby stream. He pointed to a 150-foot-long waste shed built with state financial help, and a strip of grass he has planted between his chicken houses and the stream. He said he also gives his birds a feed additive called phytase that reduces phosphorus pollution in manure.

"Maryland already has one of the best nutrient management programs in the country," Pilchard said. "It's essentially a voluntary program, but it's a successful program. Inspections by the MDE would just set up an adversarial relationship. Why do we need that?"

Environmentalists argue that more extensive government oversight is necessary, because what the state is doing today - to control chicken waste in particular, and agricultural runoff in general - isn't protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Farm fertilizer runoff continues to be the largest single source of pollution in the bay. It accounts for 37 percent of the nitrogen pollution from Maryland and 43 percent of the phosphorus pollution, both of which cause algae blooms and low-oxygen zones, according to state and federal reports. These figures include not only chicken manure spread on farms but also chemical farm fertilizer and hog and cow waste.

Nitrogen pours inAcross the region, most major Chesapeake Bay tributaries have seen rising levels of fertilizer pollution since the late 1990s, after declines in previous years, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Nitrogen continues to pour into the bay at almost twice the rate it should, according to standards set in 2000 by Maryland and five other bay states.

Nitrogen pollution in the Pocomoke River has not improved since the Pfiesteria crisis 10 years ago, even though more than 95 percent of the farmers in surrounding Worcester County have nutrient plans, according to state data.

This June, levels of nitrogen pollution in Pilchard Creek near Redden's and other farms jumped 16-fold after rain flushed the farmland - rising to four times the level considered potentially harmful to aquatic life, according to water testing done by The Sun.

Altogether, 10 stream sites sampled in the area southeast of Pocomoke City - which has the state's highest concentration of large chicken farms - rose to an average of three times healthy levels. A reporter used a commercially available nitrogen testing kit to sample streams near chicken houses on June 1, and on June 4 after rain.

Gerald W. Winegrad, former chairman of a Maryland Senate environmental subcommittee, argues that water testing next to large poultry operations is something the state should be doing. He contends that the state's current oversight of the poultry industry and agriculture generally is "a farce" because there's no enforcement or accountability.

"The bay cleanup is faltering because there is this attitude, even among some environmentalists, that agriculture wears the white hat and developers wear black hats," said Winegrad, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. "You have to address the No. 1 source of pollution in the bay, which is agriculture."

The 1972 federal Clean Water Act gives states the responsibility to clean up the nation's waterways through the issuance of permits. The EPA in 2003 told states to start issuing permits to large chicken farms, but a 2005 federal court ruling in New York raised questions about the EPA order. The court said the federal agency can't force states to require permits unless farms "discharge" pollution to waterways - a term often interpreted to mean waste pouring from pipes, not running off fields, which is harder to measure.

'Be more aggressive'The EPA is revising its rules but has said states are free to act on their own to issue permits - as at least a dozen states have.

Robert M. Summers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said his agency is working out how to legally define poultry pollution so it can start policing the state's largest chicken farms. He said his department would rely on Maryland law, if necessary, to issue regulations by the end of the year requiring permits.

"We've got the Chesapeake Bay, so we think we need to be more aggressive in terms of addressing this issue," Summers said.

(Revised Oct 2007)