Carlene Zach worked as a postal clerk and then the U.S. postmaster in the tiny town of Melfa on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. She proudly showed a visitor her 119-year-old wooden house, with its robin’s egg blue shutters, and doormat proclaiming, “home sweet home.”
“This is an Eastern Shore farmhouse,” Zach said. “The original homestead was over there. That one dates back to the 1700’s, and it’s the same family.”
Behind her house is a barn, where she feeds and cares for her horses. “They’re babies,” she said, kissing one of her animals and feeding it an apple. “He’s a good boy.”
It was through horses that she met the love of her life, her future husband, Peter, an Army veteran and lineman for the local electric company.
“He had a horse, named Apache. It’s a 23-year-old paint gelding, a really great animal,” Zach said. “And he invited me to go riding, because he knew that I had moved into town – although you don’t need a newspaper here, let’s face it. It’s a small town. ‘There’s a new girl in town, she’s got horses! You’ve got to go meet her.’ That type of thing.”
They loved their home life together as a couple – riding and exploring the scenic fields and forests all around their bucolic five-acre property. “The farmers would let you ride around the outskirts, even when they had the fields planted,” Zach said. “So you had no problem looking for a place to ride.”
Then one day, about two and a half years ago, everything changed, when a neighbor stopped by.
“This woman from over here – Anne-- came over one night,” Zach recalled. “I had come home from work – and she said, ‘Guess what?’ And I said, ‘what?’ She said, ‘They’re going to put chicken houses over here. CAFOs.’ And I said, ‘What is a CAFO?”
CAFO’s – or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – known by state regulators in Virginia simply as AFO’s – are massive, windowless, airplane hangar-like metal buildings, that are often twice the length of a football field. They are used to grow thousands of chickens, hogs and other livestock.
The farmer next door had sold his land to a company that was proposing to build 24 of these huge structures to house more than million chickens at a time just 200 yards from Carlene and Peter’s home.
Carlene Zach grew up on a farm and was comfortable with the idea farm animals next door. But she decided to fight this project because it did not seem like farming: a city of giant industrial buildings proposed on land zoned for agriculture.
“I drew up a petition – and I went door to door to door to door of all our neighbors,” Carlene Zach said.
Now, these neighbors normally might have been sympathetic to the poultry industry, because the Eastern Shore has long been home to family chicken farms. But they signed Zach’s petition, because what was being proposed here was different: Out of state investors, in this case, working through a Texas-based corporation, were proposing to build not just one or two old style chicken houses– but 24 mega-houses, about 600 feet long instead of the normal 400 feet long, with about 50 percent more capacity each. And they would be run by employees of a Texas company working on contract for Tyson Foods Inc. of Arkansas.
The number of the poultry houses is growing, according to a report I co-authored for the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, “Poultry Industry Pollution in the Chesapeake Region.”
Over the last six years alone, the number of poultry houses in Carlene’s county -- Accomack County, Virginia -- has almost doubled from 254 to 480, according to reports of the county planning department. The annual production of birds, just for just this one county, has reached more than 85 million chickens and 280 million pounds of manure a year, according to state records. Across the whole Chesapeake Bay watershed, the industry has grown to more than a billion chickens produced a year and 5.7 billion pounds of manure, some of which runs off into rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
Here’s Carlene Zach again, describing her fight at the county level against the poultry industry.
“There’s been an internal war going on here, because there are a lot of people like myself are fighting against this,” Carlene said. “But you have the established owners who have been here. The farmers, the families who have been here for years own chicken houses that were half the size of these. But they feel like we’re against them. Because what we’re trying to do is impose regulations upon these bigger operations, which will also affect them. So you have an internal war going on, where nobody is quite understanding what the heck is going on. And that’s hard, because you can’t unite that way. So this is not a fight against the family members. It’s the family chicken houses that really should be here. Because like I said: Their size and their production was relevant to the amount of land that we have and to the Chesapeake Bay and all the cleanup activities in the Bay. But these are not. These are not family owned. They are, a lot of them, owned by outside investors.”
Carlene Zach carried her petition, with 35 signatures of her neighbors, to the Accomack County Board of Supervisors. The opponents testified in December of 2017. Among their complaints was that county regulations limit the number of poultry houses on any one parcel to no more than 12. But for this project, the owners were proposing 23-- twice as many as allowed. They claimed that the larger number was permissible in this case because the cluster of buildings was technically split down the middle onto two immediately adjacent parcels of land.
Carlene Zach said the county supervisors seemed determined to vote in favor of the project, even before the public hearing.
“They said it was a done deal,” she said. “Take it for what it’s worth. It can’t be a done deal. You haven’t followed federal and state laws. You haven’t voted yet.”
The county board approved the project, despite the protest from Zach and her neighbors.
“You’ve got a political issue going on here,” she said. “So, it’s a tough call. And understand: you have a lot of people that live on this Eastern shore, and their paycheck comes from this industry. These people rely on this for the industry. So they can’t spite the hand that feeds the face.”
As soon as the 24 poultry houses were built next door, Carlene could smell and see the air pollution being blown from the facility’s industrial-scale exhaust fans. Chicken dander and manure particles drifted down like snow into her side yard.
“There’s a sweet, acrid, acidy smell that when it gets into your lungs, it makes you cough,” she said.
Her husband began to suffer chronic sinus infections and headaches, which had never before been a problem for him. His nasal passages became so inflamed, he had to undergo surgery to open them up. That surgery made him miss work, but it only helped temporarily, before the infections returned.
“You constantly suffer from upper respiratory issues – whether it’s an upper respiratory infection, and of course you go to the medical unit up the street and they give you antibiotics and you take your antibiotics,” Carlene Zach said. “Or they don’t give you antibiotics anymore, because they don’t want you to become antibiotic resistant. So you constantly suffer through the headaches, the sneezing, the stuffy nose, you know, the upper respiratory infections, the days where you don’t even want to go out and enjoy your property because you’ve lost the use of your property. That you pay taxes on. Because you can’t enjoy it or sit on the back deck because of the smell. It’s obnoxious.”
I reached out to one of the owners of the poultry houses, a businessman named Hoai Tran who is based 1,400 miles away, in the town of Mexia, Texas, south of Dallas, according to state records.
I asked him via email if he was doing anything to minimize the impact of his facility on the neighbors, including Carlene Zach. He replied: “we make sure that the manure is not scattered everywhere, and that it’s clean around the farm.”
Records of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, however, show that it is not always “clean around the farm.” The agency wrote a warning letter to Tran in April 2018 ordering him to clean up manure and dead birds that had been improperly disposed of.
However, Virginia did not fine Tran – just as it did not penalize any poultry operators for any violations in the 2017 to 2019 period for which we examined state records. This lack of penalties was despite the fact that 74 percent (or 56 out of 76) of the poultry operations on the Eastern Shore for which records were available had compliance problems during this time period. Often the violations involved the mishandling of manure or dead birds, or poor record keeping, according to state documents.
Meanwhile, next door to Hoi Tran’s poultry operation, Carlene and Peter Zach kept their windows closed. They stayed inside and stopped their horseback riding. They eventually decided they had no option but to sell their home and move. But when they put it on the market, they found no buyers. Nobody wanted to pay anything for a house next to 24 giant industrial poultry buildings.
So now the couple is abandoning their dream house. They are walking away from their only asset to escape from what they regard as a health threat: the spread of CAFOs.
“It’s just like a disease that’s spreading an infecting the area,” Carlene Zach said. “You know, and it’s a shame, because I really don’t want to move off the Eastern Shore. But I can’t stay here, if they are going to allow this. You know? I have a choice at this point, and I choose not to. I’m sacrificing my home, but better my home than my health.”
Across the U.S., a growing number of scientific studies link the air pollutants from these factory-style farms – including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter -- to a variety of health problems in neighbors, including asthma attacks, pneumonia, diarrhea, fevers and MRSA infections.
Dr. Brian Schwartz is a public health professor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He and his colleagues examined the electronic health records of more than a half million residents of central Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2015. They found almost 12,000 cases of pneumonia, a disproportionate number near high-density poultry operations.
“We found that people who lived closer to more and larger poultry operations had about a 70 percent increased risk of community-acquired pneumonia,” Dr. Schwartz said. “We don’t think it’s the bacteria itself from the farms that is causing the pneumonia. The way we think this is likely to happen is that when you are around air contaminants, it affects your airways and your ability to fight off infection, and so it increases your risk of community-acquired pneumonia.”
Because these kinds of poultry operations are located across the country, this is potentially a national issue, impacting not only Chesapeake Bay region states but even bigger poultry states like Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. But the federal government has been slow to respond.
For more than 15 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it has been conducting research on poultry house ammonia emissions. In terms of health impacts, Ammonia can cause watery eyes, coughing, asthma attacks, and inflammation of throats and nasal passages, among other symptoms, depending on the concentrations. But EPA’S studies have been repeatedly delayed – and now the release date is uncertain.
States governments have also been reluctant to act. For Example, in Maryland, lawmakers in 2017, 2018, and 2019, introduced a bill called the “Community Healthy Air Act.” It would have required the Maryland Department of the Environment to conduct air monitoring at factory farms and assess the health risks to nearby residents. All three years, however, the legislation was opposed by the influential farm lobby, and failed. In February of 2020, Maryland lawmakers debated another bill that would have imposed a moratorium on large new poultry houses – and that also was defeated after lobbying by the poultry industry.
Many poultry farmers deny there’s a problem at all – and strongly oppose any regulations or even studies of the issue.
Here’s Alan Eck, a poultry farmer from Queen Anne’s County, testifying against poultry regulations in Annapolis. “We’ve been raising chickens for over 40 years. Four generations, from my grandfather down to my father to my son,” Eck said. “And we’ve all been involved in the daily activities in the chicken house, and none of us, including my siblings, have any health concerns, at all, to be concerned about.”
Here’s Holly Porter, executive director of a trade group called Delmarva Poultry Inc., testifying against the bill in Maryland that would have imposed a temporary halt in permit to build large new poultry houses.
“This bill is a direct slap in the face to the more than 600 family farmers that raise chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” Porter said. “The label ‘industrial poultry operation’ has no purpose or intent other than belittling the hard work that our growers do every day to efficiently raise the food that feeds each of us.”
Perdue Farm Inc. lobbied against the Maryland bill requiring air pollution studies of poultry farms by making the claim that asthma attacks were lower in areas with high concentrations of chicken houses.
“We took the asthma prevalence data in each county of Maryland and Delaware,” said Steven Levitsky, a vice president at Perdue. “We took the poultry bird numbers for those counties, and did a correlation with that information. Found a negative correlation between the number of birds in the county and the asthma prevalence in the county. The three counties that did have a large amount of birds – and had high asthma levels – also have the highest smoking levels in the state. And there is a positive correlation when you map the smoking percentage against the asthma percentage.”
Dr. Brian Schwartz, the Johns Hopkins researcher, said people should not listen to Perdue Farms when it comes to asthma studies. Dr. Schwartz said he statistically corrected for smoking in his peer-reviewed 2017 study showing increased risk of asthma hospitalizations in people who live near factory farms. And he noted that he examined more than 35,000 actual health records – not mere rates of asthma by county.
“When they talk about rates, they are talking about a group of people,” Dr. Schwartz said. “When I’m talking about my study, I’m talking about evaluating each person separately. So that I know that for each person, what their health condition is, and their age and their sex, and their health insurance status and their body mass index, because being overweight or obese can change your risk of some of these, and also, whether you are a smoker or not. And so we adjust for all of those when we try to get at what we’re trying to figure out, so that we don’t mistakenly attribute something to the animal operation that was really due to the smoking.”
Dr. Joe Inzerillo is a family care physician who treats patients who live near poultry houses in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He said he’s seen first-hand the impact of large poultry houses on the lung health of his patients.
“I happen to live in an area where there is a very high density of these 600-foot poultry houses,” Dr. Inzerillo. “And I myself personally have experienced respiratory problems, and the neighbors have. And I have seen it in my professional care of patients -- where, in the other areas of the U.S. where I have practiced, I hardly saw any of these issues.”
These kinds of anecdotes can be found in many of poultry hot spots in the Chesapeake Bay region.
For example, in York County, Pennsylvania, Maria Payan lived across the street from four poultry houses. York County experienced an 88 percent growth in chickens produced for the meat industry from 2007 to 2017, according to federal farm survey data. Payan said the 100,000 birds next door triggered asthma attacks and other health problems in her son.
“I was running him to the doctor’s office for tightness of the chest all the time,” said Maria Payan. “You know, this is not normal: Rashes all the time. I called 911 one time, at night, we were actually dizzy in our own house. Inside the house. It gets in every vent, every crack – everywhere.”
Another example is Monica Brooks. She moved from California to Wicomico County, Maryland, and said she saw the impact of ammonia from the poultry houses on her family’s health.
“Headaches, throat burning, face burning, eyes burning, eyes watering,” Brooks said. “It was extremely, extremely difficult even to remain outside.”
Nearby, in Somerset County, Md., Sam Berley had six poultry houses--holding a total of 270,000 chickens -- open up next door to him.
“I have asthma – I have a slight case of asthma,” Berley said. “But it’s more just annoyance. I can smell it now – that ammonia smell, from the urine and the feces.”
Ammonia is only one of several air pollutants that rise from poultry houses. But it is a chemical compound that also causes a significant amount of water pollution. Ammonia is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen, and it breaks down into its component parts in the environment – and nitrogen is the leading cause of ecological damage to the Chesapeake Bay.
To look more into the issue of ammonia emissions from poultry houses, the Environmental Integrity Project examined data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program. It’s a collaborative research and monitoring effort of EPA and other federal and state agencies and universities. We also examined ammonia emissions estimates from the most recent independent scientific studies, and data from the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm census.
We concluded that the more than one billion chickens and turkeys in the Chesapeake Bay watershed produce about 200 million pounds of ammonia air emissions every year, along with 5.7 billion pounds of manure. Most of this is from so-called “broiler” chickens produced for the meat industry, although farmers also raise about 18 million turkeys for slaughter every year in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and some operations also raise chickens for the egg industry, especially in central Pennsylvania. The ammonia from all these birds rises into the atmosphere, and then falls back down onto the land and into the bay.
All told, this pollution from the poultry industry – from the air and runoff from manure spread on farm fields --results in a total of about 24 million pounds of nitrogen entering the tidal waters of the bay every year.
Abel Russ is a senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report, “Poultry Industry Pollution in the Chesapeake Region.”
“So the 24 million pounds of nitrogen from poultry -- that’s comparable to the amount that you’d get from all of the urban and suburban stormwater from Maryland and Virginia each year,” Russ said. “The 24 million pounds from poultry is also comparable to the amount of nitrogen you get from all the sewage treatment plants and industrial polluters in Maryland and Virginia each year, which is about 22 million pounds.”
What is the solution to this problem?
“First thing, I think we should seriously re-evaluate how we raise our food. These giant poultry facilities are a huge source of pollution, and we are seeing more and more of this factory style production concentrated in certain area, which become sort of ‘hot spots’ where the manure and the pollution really overwhelms the local environment. And it certainly doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not the way we used to do farming, and – let’s just face it – it’s just plan bad for the environment. So I think it’s important to think about that. But if you want to start from the premise that this is the new normal, there are things that can be done about both the pneumonia and the manure runoff.
With ammonia, it helps to have forested areas between the poultry barns and neighbors. The trees will absorb a lot of the ammonia, and that will absorb some of the worst air quality problems that people are experiencing now. It might also help reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the bay. With respect to manure runoff, it’s important – as much as possible – to treat land application as a surgical fertilizer application. You want to make sure the timing is right, that you’re using exactly the right amounts for crop growth. Unfortunately, land application of animal manure is often more like waste disposal. It gets overapplied, and a lot of it ends up as water pollution.”
Looking at the air emissions part of the problem, there is not enough monitoring or study of the air pollution from poultry houses, let anyone any requirements for filters or other pollution control devices.
“Air monitoring is definitely important,” said Russ. “And right now, there is very little air monitoring going on in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The real impact of ammonia on people – on neighbors – is these acute spikes of ammonia emissions. If you can smell it, it probably exceeds health-based guidelines for short-term exposure. It’s probably not good for you. But there is virtually no short term-- 10 minute, or 30 minute, or even 24 hour monitoring -- going on. So we just don’t have the data. We don’t know how bad those spikes are, how often they occur. People who live near these factories will tell you they happen too often and they’re pretty bad. And that’s true – unfortunately, we don’t have the data because it hasn’t been collected yet….That’s one thing that I think people who live in these areas really deserve, which is short-term acute monitoring, where it matters.”
Where it matters is places like Accomack County, Virginia, at the soon to be empty home of Carlene Zach.
After months of effort, in March of 2020, Carlene finally found a buyer who was willing to take her farm house for $40,000 less than Carlene and Peter’s lowest offer. They decided to swallow the loss and packed up for the mountains of Tennessee.
But before she left, Carlene said she’s angry that her quality of life and beloved home – and the rural character of the Eastern Shore – were sacrificed for an industry that sends most of its profits to out-of-state corporations, leaving its waste behind. And that feels like a betrayal of both the land and the local people.
“This is the most beautiful place on earth to live,’ Carlene Zach said, looking around her property. “It’s the only land left that isn’t developed. And to sacrifice it for this kind of development is a rape of this beautiful land.”