Md. Gets Tough on Chicken Farmers

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

Maryland regulators today will announce the tightest-ever controls on what Eastern Shore poultry farmers do with their birds' waste, officials said yesterday, adopting a tougher stance toward state agricultural interests in a bid to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The rules, proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, would create unprecedented scrutiny of the state's powerful poultry industry, currently not subject to several regulations that apply to dairy and hog farms. Environmentalists say poultry waste washes downstream, eventually helping trigger low-oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake.

Today's proposal would limit where, how and for how long chicken farmers may store excess manure in outdoor piles, open to the rain. And for the first time, it would allow state officials to inspect poultry farms unannounced.

These changes seems likely to revive a debate between farmers and environmentalists that has been simmering since poultry waste was blamed for the outbreak of the bacteria Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake in 1997.

"It's controversial, but it's necessary," Maryland Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson said.

Representatives of the state's poultry business said yesterday that they would not comment on the regulations until they had read them.

But in the past, chicken farmers have said that they feel scapegoated for the bay's larger problems. They say that pollution doesn't make business sense: Why would they let large amounts of manure, a valuable fertilizer source, slip away in the rain?

"We'd go bankrupt in a heartbeat if we did something like that," said Virgil Shockley, who has about 100,000 birds and is president of the Worcester County Commission. In a telephone interview this week, he said that the manure spread on nearby cornfields is not what environmentalists ought to be worrying about.

"There's less nitrogen in those cornfields than there [is] on the lawns on the Potomac River," Shockey said. "I will bet my bank account on it." Nitrogen is a key factor in algae blooms.

The state's farm lobby will have its chance to comment on the proposed rules during public hearings, including two in November on the Eastern Shore. State officials said that the rules probably will not be finalized until early next year.

The proposal is a political risk for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who must balance the environmentalism in the state's urban middle with the economic needs of the Eastern Shore. State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who has argued for stricter regulation of chicken operations, said he was glad that the state was cracking down.

"We're starting to get our arms around it," Gansler said. "Up to this point, there has been zero regulation."

Maryland's chicken industry is concentrated in rural sections of the lower Eastern Shore, where one grower can raise thousands of birds in a single barnlike "house." The business is Maryland's largest agricultural endeavor, contributing $845 million to the state's economy and employing approximately 15,000 across the Delmarva region, according to an industry group. Collectively, the industry represents the eighth-largest employer in the Washington area, just ahead of Marriott Corp.

But advocates for the Chesapeake have long complained about its byproduct: "litter," a foul-smelling mix of sawdust bedding and chicken excrement that is shoveled off the houses' floors. It is piled up for storage or spread on fields as fertilizer. From there, environmentalists say, it takes only a little rain to start the chicken waste flowing to the Chesapeake.

"They've let this industry grow with no forethought for the environmental consequences," said Michele Merkel of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.

Although poultry waste accounts for less pollution in the Chesapeake than the cattle industry, the contamination from chicken and turkey farms has been the least regulated individual source of agricultural pollution of the bay.

Computer models of the bay's pollution indicate that poultry manure accounts for as much of the pollutant nitrogen as all the septic systems in the bay's watershed. Poultry waste accounts for 5 to 7 percent of the pollution that causes "dead zones" in the bay.

But it attracted relatively little attention until the summer of 1997, when the toxic bacteria Pfiesteria piscicida killed thousands of fish in several bay tributaries. Scientists said that nutrients in manure-laden runoff might have provided food for the bacteria's boom.

State officials tried to impose tighter controls on chicken farmers then. But the poultry business objected, and the idea finally died after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took over in 2003.

The changes proposed today apply only to the largest chicken-producing operations in Maryland, those with 75,000 or more square feet of bird housing. That includes at least 200 of the state's roughly 800 poultry farms, but state officials said that combined they account for about 50 percent of the pollution related to poultry manure.

Under the rules, farmers would no longer be allowed to leave manure in outdoor piles indefinitely. For the first three years of their new permit, they would be allowed to keep it in a pile for 90 days. After that, the limit would be 30 days. In Virginia, many chicken farms are limited to 14 days.

Also, the farmers would be required to abide by a "nutrient management plan," limiting the amount of chicken manure they can apply to their fields as fertilizer. They are already required to do this, but officials said the difference will be in the enforcement. Currently, inspections are done by the state Department of Agriculture, whose agents call ahead and focus mainly on paperwork, not usually checking the fields.

Under the new rules, inspectors from the Department of Environment could arrive at anytime and check around the farm itself. Environmentalists and scientists have said previously that this kind of inspection would be vital to ensuring that farmers followed the law.

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