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December 18, 2009

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."

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)


I wish these folks lots of luck in trying to protect the Bay. Here in Oklahoma, Big Chicken is being sued for polluting the Illinois River watershed. A win would mean a victory for clean water across our nation.

Ed Brocksmith
Save the Illinois River, Inc., STIR

Will the Sun follow up on this story when it is proven that the pile is not, in fact, poultry manure or litter, but is merely fertilizer in the form of processed sewage sludge form the OC Treatment Plant? It's the same as Milorganite, a fertilizer familiar to all the tree huggers.

TW: I heard late yesterday afternoon from Perdue that the pile is sewage sludge from Ocean City. I was unable to get confirmation, though, either from the town or the Maryland Department of the Environment. If it is processed sewage sludge, that does raise questions - among them, could it be the source of the high bacterial counts the Waterkeepers say they picked up in the drainage ditch, or did that come from some other source or sources?

"..lab results showed elevated levels of e.coli and fecal coliform bacteria, of nitrogen and phosphorus, arsenic and ammonia." Sounds about right. Animal agriculture, coupled with human demand for meats and dairy, is ruining our climate - so this waste isn't very surprising.

Perdue is shifting blame to contract growers in an attempt void liability. The company may boast that its subsidiary farms are not tied into factory farming, but we all know that you don't have to have a factory farm to contribute emissions into the atmosphere.

It's simple - neither Perdue nor its "contract growers" want to take the blame for the piles of waste seeping into the Pocomoke River. Maybe a hefty fine will help the company change its tune.

Anai Rhoads
Friends of Animals, an advocacy group founded in 1957.

I love the way we can all blame big business for it's' greed and carelessness. Think of this pile next time you sit down to your order of wings. For it is ultimately us, the consumer which creates this situation. Not a pretty truth, but a truth none the less. And yes, I do love my wings also.

Is all hope lost when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay or will one day Baltimore Harbor be swimmable and fishable. Can this society afford the cost, one way or the other ?

Great information in this article. It would be nice for someone to fix the typo in the last sentence of paragraph two. It should be ultimately drains instead of "ultimate drains." Thanks.

TW: Good catch. Done. Thank you.

Purdue has the most advanced poultry litter processing plant in the world, they do clean out for Delmarva farmers for free, because poultry littler is valuable organic fertilizer. While there maybe violations of best management practices on this farm, it is the farmer, not the integrator who is ultimately responsible. The bay is in sad shape, but rest assured, without farms and farmers there will be unabated residential and commercial development from which the watershed will never recover. Purdue and other shore based poultry producers provide and essential market for local producers. Without strong local demand for commodities (soybean and corn) local grain farmers would suffer from deflated pricing thus confounding an already precarious industry. If it is the water keeper’s intent to force Maryland agriculture to its knees through a string of misguided lawsuits, then they are well on their way. But beware of unitended consequences, land-use conversion from agricultural to commercial/residential would prove more detrimental to the health of the bay than a few family farms on the shore struggling to comply with BMP’s.

Will the Sun follow up on this story when it is proven that the pile is not, in fact, poultry manure or litter, but is merely fertilizer in the form of processed sewage sludge form the OC Treatment Plant? It's the same as Milorganite, a fertilizer familiar to all the tree huggers. thanks

TW: In fact, we did report that the state inspected and declared the pile was processed sewage sludge from Ocean City, rather than poultry manure. See here:

The state fined the farmer for improper storage of sludge near a waterway, but closed out its investigation without determining the source or sources of high bacteria levels in the drainage ditch running through the farm. The Waterkeeper Alliance has filed suit, accusing the farmers and Perdue, for whom the farmers raise poultry, of allowing pollution into the drainage ditch, which ultimately emties into the Pocomoke River. The grower and company have denied any responsibility for what was in the ditch. The case is pending.

heavy, what is going through someone's mind, that polutes the environment?

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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