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Landmark Court Decision Requires Regulation of Air Pollution from Poultry Houses

A landmark court decision last week requires the Maryland Department of the Environment – for the first time – to start regulating the ammonia air pollution that rises from the Eastern Shore’s massive poultry industry.

Montgomery County Judge Sharon Burrell on Thursday ruled that the state must strengthen and broaden the water pollution control permits it issues for more than 2,000 chicken houses. Farmers will be required to take steps to control the ammonia that is blown out into the atmosphere through industrial-scale fans.

Ever year in the Chesapeake region, the ammonia from the manure of hundreds of millions of chickens drifts down onto the Bay and its watershed to contribute about 12 million pounds of nitrogen pollution – the Bay’s biggest killer -- into the estuary every year, according to EPA estimates.

That’s more nitrogen pollution going into the Bay than from all the sewage and industrial wastewater plants in Maryland or Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit was brought by Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper.

“I was elated,” said Phillips. “This was a huge win for not only the Chesapeake Bay and the pollution loads going to the bay, but also a huge win for the citizens here on the lower Eastern Shore. This is going to improve public health, it’s going to improve the quality of the water they drink, the water they recreate in. It’s just a big win, all the way around.”

Until last week’s court decision, this airborne source of pollution in the Bay from what are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs was totally unregulated and uncontrolled.

Kathy Phillips lawyer is David Reed, Co-Executive Director of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance.

“Ammonia is a form of nitrogen, and it’s not simply that there’s excess nitrogen,” said Reed. “We are talking about millions of pounds of nitrogen being delivered to Maryland’s rivers and the Bay each year. So it can have devastating impacts: the ammonia; the algal blooms; the oxygen depletion; the fish kills. These types of impacts are the result of all these millions of pounds of excess nitrogen being delivered to the system.”

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment said in a written statement that the agency is still studying the court decision. The spokesman, Jay Apperson, said: “Maryland has long been in the forefront nationally in the environmental regulation of animal feeding operations.”

The Delmarva Chicken Association’s Director, Holly Porter, said: "While Maryland farmers work hard to achieve environmental progress, including sustained reductions in nutrients delivered to the Chesapeake Bay, these activists remain determined to put hundreds of farm families out of work by eradicating chicken farming on the Eastern Shore."

This is a familiar refrain from the farm lobby, but it is not true. If Maryland revises its permits for chicken houses to comply with the court ruling, poultry farming will not be banned. Experts say farmers will simply have to take steps that some already do like placing bales of hay next to exhaust fans to act as filters for ammonia, as well as planting more trees and hedges to absorb air pollution, and adding chemicals like ammonium sulfate to chicken manure to reduce ammonia emissions

A report last year from the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that while pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay has declined from city and county sewage treatment plants on the Western Shore, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from the Eastern Shore’s poultry country has actually risen over the last decade.

This new court decision could help reverse that negative pollution trend for the Eastern Shore and help the Chesapeake Bay.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.