Report charges chicken farm regulators are falling down on the job
The Maryland agencies charged with regulating the Eastern Shore’s giant poultry industry are failing in their efforts to protect Chesapeake Bay tributaries, according to a new report from the Washington based Environmental Integrity Project.
In the report released Thursday, the organization analyzed more than 5,000 pages of documents from Maryland’s Departments of the Environment and Agriculture. It found that 84% of the farms for which they had records had violated their clean water permits by not properly storing chicken manure, potentially allowing it to reach bay tributaries.
Eric Schaefer, the project’s executive director, said in a news conference that’s stalling Bay clean-up efforts.
“For all the hoopla around the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, and the progress that's been made here, and there, we are stuck, when it comes to Eastern Shore rivers and the poultry industry,” he said. “We're not seeing change, we're not seeing the kind of improvement that we were hoping to get at this point.”
For example, documents from the Department of the Environment, or MDE, show that two-thirds of the poultry operations inspected between 2018 and 2020 violated waste management requirements by leaving poultry litter where it could wash into nearby streams, polluting them further.
High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, much of it from chicken litter, contribute to increased growth of algae in bay waters and decreased levels of dissolved oxygen, leading to dead zones where no aquatic life can survive.
Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, said she sees piles of manure that should have been properly stored left outside on the chicken farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding operations, or KAFOs, for a week or longer.
“And it's very upsetting to me to drive past the same kfo four or five days later, after we've had a heavy rain,” she said “And it's very evident that the manure has washed off at the pads.”
Worse, she said, there are no consequences.
“Anyone who lives down here can see violations and those are reported to MDE but very seldom are they followed up on.”
The Department of Agriculture documents show that inspectors who should enforce farmers’ plans to keep fertilizer loaded with polluting nutrients from washing into streams leave the soil testing to farmers.
And even though more than half the farmers who filed reports in 2019 admitted they violated the rules for applying manure, the department has never penalized any of them.
Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, complained those problems are covered over by other reports of progress toward meeting Bay cleanup goals.
“But at the same time, nobody is doing anything about these consistent violations,” she said. “And that's simply not fair. That's not fair for other farmers, who are doing a good job, other agricultural operators,” she said.
In addition, the report found that MDE’s limited staff—three inspectors for more than 500 poultry operations—has led to fewer inspections of poultry operations every year, a 40% drop since 2013 while the number of poultry operations has expanded.
Monica Brooks, of the Wicomico County NAACP, said she and her neighbors need more inspectors keeping track of the farms.
“We need more enforcement,” she insisted. “We need our Department of Environment to be shored up with enough personnel, with enough follow up, with enough follow through so that our communities can be protected.”
The Environmental Integrity Project’s Schaeffer, noted that nearly all the Eastern Shore’s poultry farmers are under contracts to supply giant processors like Perdue, Mountaire and Tyson’s.
“They have the money. They are the deep pockets in this industry. Let's make them responsible for the waste money management problems their own contractors are creating,” he demanded.
Officials at the Department of the Environment, or MDE, and the Department of Agriculture, declined requests for interviews, but issued statements saying they are reviewing the report.
The Department of Agriculture statement said the report’s numbers are “not in line with MDA’s own data” and that the department “prioritizes compliance over punitive measures.”
MDE’s statement said most of the violations involve record-keeping rather than water quality issues and added the department “will go after polluters and impose financial penalties when needed.”
In that statement Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said he welcomes suggestions.
This post has been updated.
Correction: The audio version of this report misstated part of the findings of the Environmental Integrity Project. It should have said the organization, which analyzed more than 5,000 pages of documents from Maryland's Departments of the Environment and Agriculture found that 84% of the 182 poultry operations inspected between 2017 and 2020 had violated their clean water permits by not properly storing chicken manure, potentially allowing it to reach bay tributaries.