Chicken waste linked to toxin in Pocomoke Nutrient-rich runoff may bolster Pfiesteria

September 07, 1997|By Dan Fesperman and Timothy B. Wheeler | Dan Fesperman and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

After identifying the microscopic prime suspect in the recent poisoning of the Pocomoke River, scientists began looking for accessories to the disaster. It didn't take long to come across a familiar repeat offender from the rap sheet of Chesapeake Bay pollution: chicken manure, enough in this case to equal the sewage produced by a city of 1 million people.

That's what you'll find within the 430 square miles of land draining into the Pocomoke, a sparsely populated landscape where poultry outnumbers people about 500 to 1. The manure often ends up on area fields, fertilizing the grain that will feed the next wave of chickens, and along the way plenty gets washed into streams and ground water.

This nutrient-rich runoff has for years shared in the blame for the bay's long-term decline, but not until now, after the Pocomoke's fish kills and sickened watermen, has the runoff been implicated in creating a direct hazard to humans. Scientists, while cautioning that they don't yet have proof of the link, say the nutrients may have nourished the destructive bloom of Pfiesteria piscicida, the microorganism that caused the state to close a seven-mile stretch of the river.

Given the economic and political lay of the land, it is an accusation almost guaranteed to stir up trouble. Already, watermen and farmers have turned against each other at a public hearing. Environmentalists across the state are renewing calls to regulate the way farmers use and store manure, while the farmers, after years of virtually regulating themselves when it comes to runoff controls, are asking their numerous supporters in state government to hold the line.

Although state officials say the blackwater Pocomoke, slow and narrow, may be uniquely vulnerable to Pfiesteria, environmentalists worry that it could be a harbinger for the future of other nearby rivers flowing into the bay, such as the Nanticoke and the Wicomico.

"This may just be a canary in a mine," said Carin Bisland of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay office, referring to the way canaries were once used to warn miners of impending disaster.

But balanced against such worries, not only within the watershed but across the Delmarva Peninsula, are all those chickens (600 million in the course of a year), the hundreds of farms that raise and feed them, the processors that package them, the 25,000 jobs that keep the whole operation running, and the consumers whose appetite only seems to get bigger.

Demand for chickens grows

The country that once considered steak and hamburger to be dietary staples now eats more chicken than beef. The average person now eats about 30 more pounds of chicken per year than in 1975, and the poultry industry has kept pace by refining mass production techniques at companies such as Perdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury, finding ways to raise more chickens in less space while helping the state nearly triple its broiler production since 1960.

But with all that growth has come more manure, and with the manure has come the runoff, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. The amounts that haven't drained directly into the bay have seeped into the ground, which on the Eastern Shore is the geologic equivalent of sponge -- sandy and porous, doing little to filter the nitrogen and phosphorus from ground water.

The nutrients, also present in sewage that reaches the bay, fuel massive algae growth, which has killed off underwater grasses and deprived fish of oxygen they need to survive.

Maryland and neighboring states pledged a decade ago to reduce nutrients entering the bay 40 percent by 2000. But the cleanup effort is projected to fall short, by 21 million pounds in the case of nitrogen, unless the pace quickens.

"The race is on," said William Matuszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis, "between whether we can get the nutrients down before this stuff (such as Pfiesteria) happens again and elsewhere."

Lawmakers have nearly exhausted nonfarm strategies for reducing the nutrients, having already banned phosphate detergents and tightened controls on sewage treatment plants. Some of those are still far from state of the art, such as the plants on the Pocomoke, which are not removing nutrients. (Even so, sewage and industrial wastewater accounts for only 6 percent of the nutrients going into the Pocomoke.)

Political realities

But cracking down on farmers is not as politically palatable as, for example, cracking down on Procter & Gamble, the giant manufacturer that unsuccessfully opposed the phosphate detergent ban.

A large corporation facing new regulations can increase its prices. Poultry farmers, who operate on slim profit margins, must keep their costs low to meet the demands of their contracts with the processing companies.

Steve Cullen, 55, who with his son, Brent, raises about 78,000 chickens and farms 2,500 acres near Crisfield, said, "We're going by the government regulations as such now.

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