Clarence K. Lam, a Democrat, represents the 12th District in the Maryland House, where he is the sponsor of the Poultry Litter Management Act. Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch.
Maryland’s poultry industry has run roughshod over the Chesapeake Bay for too long.
The industry has successfully shifted liability onto the taxpayer for the massive amounts of poultry waste that run off Maryland’s factory farms into the state’s waterways. Fortunately, recently introduced state legislation would force the big chicken companies to take responsibility for their waste and its impact on the bay and local communities.
For decades, the historic Chesapeake Bay watershed has been polluted by excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from manure that runs off industrial farm operations. These factory farms have been choking the bay with excess pollutants, causing algae blooms that consume oxygen and create “dead zones” where fish and shellfish cannot survive. A U.S. Geological Survey report released last year pointed specifically to the Eastern Shore poultry industry for levels of nitrogen in the region’s waters that are among the highest in the nation.
The legislation, the Poultry Litter Management Act, would help reverse this trend by requiring chicken companies to finally clean up after themselves, which other major industries in the United States already are asked to do. The companies would be required to pick up all excess manure from their contract growing operations while allowing contract growers to retain the manure necessary to fertilize their own crops. It also would ensure that chicken companies dispose of their excess manure in a way that does not harm the environment or communities. It’s that simple.
This legislative session, you’ll hear from the big Eastern Shore chicken companies — Perdue, Tyson Foods and Mountaire Farns— that won’t be happy about having to use some of their big profits on cleaning up their own mess. They’d prefer to allow taxpayers to foot the bill for picking up after the industry and protecting the bay. Since 2004, Marylanders have contributed $767 million to bay restoration . State taxpayers have spent $5.6 million since 1999 to move the chicken companies’ manure from overburdened contract growers. With some of these corporations enjoying annual sales of $6.3 billion, it seems only fair that they — and not struggling Marylanders — pay to clean up their waste and protect the bay.
It’s not only the bay and taxpayers that have suffered from the free ride enjoyed by the chicken industry; it’s also the industry’s contract growers. As the industry has become increasingly concentrated, the powerful companies that control it pay their contract growers a low wage while avoiding any responsibility for the at least 228,000 tons of excess manure produced by their hundreds of millions of chickens every year. Perdue and Tyson control these vertically integrated operations by shifting costs to growers. Growers and state taxpayers bear the burden of the waste while Big Chicken enjoys the profits.
The Poultry Litter Management Act would give us a chance to make the industry accountable for irresponsible corporate practices, relieving taxpayers. It is an equitable, common-sense approach that has support from the bay environmental community, including Food & Water Watch, the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It would protect taxpayers and contract growers while asking corporations to do their fair share to protect our historic watershed.
Passing this legislation is the right thing to do for Maryland and the bay.