Waterkeepers take aim at Perdue, farm pollution
A confrontation that's been brewing for a long time seems about to take place. A pair of environmental groups are threatening to sue an Eastern Shore chicken grower and Perdue Farms, the giant poultry corporation for which the farmer raises his birds.
Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance have filed a formal notice of intent to take legal action against Hudson Farms in Berlin and Perdue Farms Inc. for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The two groups, part of an international coalition of watershed watchdogs headed by environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., contend that manure from the farm is washing into a drainage ditch that ultimately drains into the Pocomoke River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, said she and alliance staff saw what appeared to be a large pile of chicken "litter" by a drainage ditch as they examined aerial photographs taken in an October flight over the lower Shore looking for potential pollution problems on large chicken farms. "Litter" is a mixture of poultry manure with wood shavings, used in chicken houses to help collect and compost the animal waste. (A picture of the pile supplied by the Waterkeepers is shown above, as is an overview of the farm below.)
"When we began .. to look at them more closely, we saw there was this one trench from the bottom of the pile out to an open ditch," Phillips recalled. The groups followed up by sampling water from the ditch downstream from the farm, and lab results showed elevated levels of e.coli and fecal coliform bacteria, of nitrogen and phosphorus, arsenic and ammonia. The bacteria are an indicator of animal (or possibly human) waste, while nitrogen and phosphorus are the nutrients scientists say are primarily responsible for the "dead zones" forming in the bay every summer.
A water sample Dec. 9 from the ditch came back with a fecal coliform count of 280,000, according to Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for the Waterkeeper Alliance. He called that "off the charts for pollution."
Alan and Kristin Hudson, named by the keepers as the owners of the farm where they saw the pile, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Perdue spokesman Luis Luna issued a statement saying the pile photographed by the environmentalists was not manure at all and dismissing the groups' press release as "full of errors and misstatements."
Perdue's statement disputed the environmental groups' characterization of the Hudson's 80,000-bird facility as a "factory farm." "Perdue owns no factory farms," it said. "Families that raise poultry for Perdue are independent farmers."
Luna also wrote that the Hudsons had informed Perdue they hadn't removed any poultry litter from their houses for the past 20 weeks - since before the groups first spotted that pile.
Asked what the pile is, Luna said he didn't know. "But it isn't poultry litter," he added.
If the pile isn't chicken manure, countered Phillips, "then what is it that it's so hot?" The groups sampled the ditch about 700 yards down from the farm, she said, and the pollution levels measured in the water "are saying that there's something in there that's very close to a chicken farm."
This isn't the first action the waterkeepers have taken regarding farm runoff of fertilizer and animal manure, which scientists say remains a major source of the nutrient pollution fouling the bay. Waterkeeper groups went to court and won a partial victory in seeking public release of "nutrient management plans" every farm in Maryland is required to have, and they challenged the adequacy of regulations proposed by the state Department of the Environment covering medium- and large-scale chicken farms. The state ultimately rejected the waterkeeper challenge and adopted its rules.
Meanwhile, though, more than half of the state's chicken farmers were prompted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to subject themselves to more stringent federal regulation as "concentrated animal feeding operations," something most had fervently wished to avoid. Since receiving hundreds of notices of intent to seek permits, the state environment department is working to ensure that all of them submit the required documentation, said spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. She confirmed that Hudson Farms had applied for a permit, and said state inspectors would be looking into the allegations made by the waterkeepers. To see the farms that have filed for pollution permits, go here.
The waterkeepers' Edwards said the exposed manure piles like the one they claim they photographed on the Hudson farm are "not atypical." But he added, "This isnt' an all-out assault on farmers on the Shore - that isn't our intent and has never been our intent." Rather he said, "we will go after polluters" - and, he added, after the poultry companies that own the birds but don't claim any responsibility for the manure they produce.
"This farm has a big sign outside of it saying this is a Perdue contract grower," Edwards said. Perdue dictates pretty much every aspect of this farm operation ... Perdue reaps all the rewards and profits and tries to leave the farmer to dispose of this big mountain of manure as he can."