84% of poultry farms raised water pollution problems: report

The poultry industry is facing further opposition following a study by an environmental watch group claiming that a high number of transactions resulted in at least one violation over a four-year period, and that few have paid penalties.

A report from the Environmental Integrity Project found that 84% of the 182 Maryland poultry farms state inspected between 2017 and 2020 had one or more violations of their water pollution control permits.

The report, released on Thursday, also noted that just four establishments, or 2% of the total, paid penalties, according to a broad investigation of public records.

James Fisher, communications director of the Delmarva Chicken Association, called the report in a statement a way to “cripple family chicken farm business models in the name of activism.”

According to the report’s findings, about two-thirds of the poultry farms that failed inspections had problems with waste management, such as manure left outside where rain could wash it into streams, inadequate waste storage facilities or unsanitary disposal of dead chickens.

More than half of the poultry operations for which records were available in 2019 reported to the state that they illegally applied manure to their crops in amounts greater than what their nutrient management plans allow.

However, the state did not impose any sanctions for these violations.

“The poultry industry on the coast produces (around) 600 million pounds of manure each year, and that’s far more than cropland can absorb,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Integrity Project. environmental protection and former director of civil law enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency. “Phosphorus flows into streams and ends up in Chesapeake Bay and sucks oxygen from the water.”

Exacerbating the situation, argues the Environmental Integrity Project, state records confirm that more than two-thirds of poultry farms were not inspected at all between 2017 and 2020.

When doing so, state inspectors:

  • Are not allowed to take soil samples to determine if fields are saturated with nutrients and likely to run off into public waterways.
  • They do not take samples for ammonia air pollution from poultry house exhaust fans.
  • They do not regularly test the water in nearby streams and ditches.
  • Inspections are limited to observing obvious problems – such as uncovered manure piles open to rain and wind – and reviewing the operator’s own records.

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The Environmental Integrity Project also noted that “the number of poultry farms inspected by the Maryland Department of the Environment on an annual basis has declined by 40 percent since 2013, even as the number of licensed operations has increased slightly, according to state records ”, the report indicated.

Fisher argues that the frequency with which inspections are carried out by the state has more to do with federal regulations.

“The EPA has guidelines on how often states should inspect, so states don’t just decide for themselves how much inspection they should perform,” Fisher said. “I think the authors of this report would be happy if there were inspectors fining all over the place and it was putting farms at risk. DCA and consumers don’t want this to happen.”

The MDE inspected an average of 218 operations per year from 2013 to 2017, but only 134 per year from 2018 to 2020, with the decline predating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Chesapeake Bay watershed is on a cleanup plan with a total maximum daily load with targets expected to be met by 2025,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to meet them, in large part because of the separation of what is happening on the pitch and what is being reported.”

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Controversial data

Despite the lackluster findings of the EIP, their findings still anger industry insiders.

Fisher added that the state has learned to work with poultry farmers rather than just penalizing them for infractions.

The number of significant breaches found by the MDE, Fisher said, has declined over the years. He noted that this was a sign that farmers are reacting to less punitive measures instead of fines.

“It is certainly in the best interests of this group to make the situation look as bad as possible. I thought it was interesting that they made an effort not to make it clear how much compliance with Nutrient management plans is actually high, ”Fisher said.

According to DCA, looking at the data at the macro level reveals that the actual number of farmers misapplying litter compared to the allowable amount is estimated at only 6%.

“Farmers are doing something right in terms of environmental regulations, as the nutrient load in the bay has decreased over the past 25 years or so. This is the same time our cities and suburbs are sending more pollution into the sea. bay, ”Fisher said. .

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The DCA credited nearly half of the regional poultry farmers for having a vegetative environmental pad on their property to capture dust, noise and odors. Further efforts to get more farmers to do the same are underway.

Andrea Staub, spokesperson for Perdue Farms, said in a statement that the report “takes an unfair and widespread approach to criticizing family farmers in Maryland and misses an opportunity to highlight the many positive examples of environmental stewardship taking place. “.

The Purdue Farms factory in Salisbury, Tuesday May 5, 2020.

Staub called the farmers the company contracts with as incredibly dedicated to protecting the environment in their own operations and for the good of the community. She added that Perdue Farms also agrees with calls for more state-level support to help them in their efforts.

The company cites its advocacy for a full and timely implementation of the phosphorus management tool as an example of continued efforts to protect the environment. Staub added that regulating farms is the responsibility of the state.

“It is important to note that the local farmers who raise chickens for Perdue do so under contract with us, but they are not employees of Perdue nor do we own their farms,” Staub said. “Having said that, we have extremely high confidence in our network of farmers, and we know how hard they work and how determined they are to protect their farms and their communities.”

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Of the 503 total Maryland farms referenced in the report, Staub ultimately added, less than a third of them were under contract to raise chickens for Perdue. She also said that it is impossible to determine for which company the offending farms were raising chickens.

“As such, it would be inaccurate and unfair to point the finger at any one of them as a group without further proof of the identity of the offenders,” Staub said.

Proposed changes

Cost-shared funding for measures that reduce nutrient runoff from farms is essential if the Inland Bays watershed is to meet water quality objectives.  Chicken farmers are doing their part by installing measures like the heavy-duty pad shown with this chicken coop.

The data from the environmental integrity project makes recommendations for the state to consider. They understand:

  • The MDE and the Maryland Department of Agriculture should more frequently impose – and then actually collect – penalties against poultry operations that do not meet the requirements of their water pollution control permits or do not comply with their nutrient management plans. These fines should also be extended to large poultry companies which exercise extensive control over their contract producers. The penalties may remain low and inconsequential as long as the state imposes them only on farmers and not on integrators.
  • Maryland is expected to vigorously enforce the state’s new manure enforcement rules, called the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), which came into full effect on July 1. As part of monitoring these rules, Maryland should allow MDA and MDE inspectors to take soil samples from fields. to perform a reality check on self-reported compliance information.
  • Farms that import manure from poultry operators and apply it to their own fields should be required to file annual reports demonstrating that manure application is in accordance with nutrient management plans.
  • The MDE should hire more inspectors for feed operations, so the agency can review them more than once every five years and ensure they are complying with their permit requirements.
  • The state should increase monitoring of the water and air around poultry farms, particularly by adding a series of ammonia monitors to farms with neighbors immediately downwind.
  • MDE should review and strengthen its general water pollution control permits for animal feed operations to work to control ammonia emissions to air. Permitting requirements should include the installation of ammonia pollution control systems, such as “scrubbers” and the maintenance of thick buffer zones of trees surrounding barns.

The report and recommendations from the Environmental Integrity Project were presented to the MDE on August 25 with Jay Apperson, Deputy Director of the Office of Communications, discussing the key findings.

“A high percentage of discovered violations are associated with record keeping requirements, as opposed to water quality issues,” Apperson said in a statement to Delmarva Now this week. . “When we find environmental issues, we focus on bringing facilities back to regulatory compliance, but we will prosecute polluters and impose financial penalties if necessary. “

Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, added that the MDE welcomes the suggestions and will give the report a thorough review.

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