Here’s a little known fact. That booming chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula began by accident in 1923. Cecile Steele, the wife of a farmer in Ocean View, Delaware, ordered 50 chicks from a nearby hatchery for egg production. They sent her 500.
She kept them, grew them out to about two pounds each, sold them for a profit and ordered 1,000 more the next year. Five years later she was raising 26,000 chickens and some 500 other farmers had caught on.
Now, there are 600-foot-long chicken houses cropping up by the dozens every year all over the peninsula. That may be good for chicken farmers, but all those chickens produce hundreds of thousands of tons of manure every year. And what to do with that mess so close to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is a perennial problem.
Farmers use it for fertilizer on their crop fields, but the fields don’t need that much manure and the excess washes off into nearby waterways, creating the algal blooms that lead to dead zones.
Most of the bay states have strict regulations to slow that run-off, but environmentalists and others have complained they aren’t enough and they want more regulation of the source – those large poultry houses.
Back in 2010, the EPA found three Virginia Eastern Shore poultry farmers violating the federal Clean Water Act. Now, the Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are proposing a new permit to require more boots-on-the-ground monitoring for some farms. It includes some quarterly inspections and storm water discharge sampling.
But Sue Mastyl, of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, wants even more oversight from environmental regulators.
“As far as actually measuring water quality issues and air quality issues, DEQ - with the permits that these poultry operations currently have - assumes that there is no pollution,” she said. “Therefore there's nothing to measure.”
It’s a complaint echoed by Maryland residents who live near concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS, that are springing up throughout the Eastern Shore.
Poultry houses in Maryland must have storm water controls, but no one tests the runoff or the air emissions. Mastyl and others who attended a recent public hearing on Virginia’s proposed permit complained the sampling it does call for uses no science and doesn't go far enough.
“The measurement is for the farmer to get a glass of water, look at it, smell it and send in a report,” she said.
But commercial farmers say they already have to deal with piles of paperwork to comply with state and federal regulations and spend tens of thousands of dollars on storm water management projects. Mark McCready, a lifelong poultry farmer who moved his operations from Maryland to Virginia, told regulators at the hearing he has to send manure samples to a lab in North Carolina for testing.
“I just went through about four or five weeks ago, a DEQ full audit,” he said. “They came to the farm. They inspected everything. They inspected the grounds, the manure shed…and all of my documentation. I have all of my documentation from five years ago, where the manure went, how it went, how much, all of it.”
Chicken farm neighbors in Virginia and Maryland also are worried about ammonia sucked out by the giant fans and blown into their yards. A bill requiring state environmental officials to monitor those emissions died last year in Maryland’s General Assembly and is under consideration again this year.
McCready says that's not a problem.
“Ammonia levels, when I was a little boy would knock you down, if you went into the chicken house,” he said. “Now, if you've got 15 parts per million, poultry welfare law states, you better be doing something, you're not doing something right.”
Like Virginia, new poultry houses in Maryland have extensive storm water controls to prevent runoff.
Hans Schmidt, Maryland's assistant secretary of agriculture for resource conservation, says growers have made changes in their operations. They’re leaving manure in the chicken houses longer to inoculate the next batch of chickens from diseases and they’re giving the birds more room in the buildings.
“It's a huge change in the management in how they handle these birds and how they handle manure,” he said.
Maryland estimates its Eastern Shore poultry houses produce about 387,000 tons annually. That's a little over 19,000 dump truck loads. And it's carefully monitored.
“They can't just take the manure out and spread it on the ground,” Schmidt said. “It actually is a requirement under the CAFO permit that they need to have the ability to store that manure until the time is right for the farmer to apply that manure to the ground or move it to another location that might be for another alternative use.”
In Virginia, Accomack and Northampton counties have tightened zoning regulations, limiting the number of chicken houses per acre and requiring larger setbacks from property lines. Last month, the tiny 395-acre town of Painter approved zoning regulations stricter than Accomack County’s, basically squeezing out any plan for industrial-sized poultry houses.
In Delaware, Sussex County is considering tightening its zoning regulations and meantime is close to closing a deal on a chicken litter recycling operation.
Virginia's lucrative aquaculture industry is also paying close attention.
Dick Snyder, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore lab, says they “owe it to the Eastern Shore and the community and the state to find out if the regulations being used are adequate to protect water quality.”
Snyder, who is part of the Delmarva Land & Litter Challenge, a multi-state task force of environmental, academic, governmental, and agricultural communities determining limits to spreading poultry manure for fertilizer on the peninsula, says he owes it to the oyster farmers and others in aquaculture “to make sure that chicken houses are not going to adversely affect aquaculture on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
That task force plans to release its findings later this year.