Poultry company to pay $6 million for polluting Eastern Shore processor spilled waste into stream

Most severe penalty in Md.

Hudson Foods facility later bought by Tyson

May 08, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

In the most severe penalty ever doled out in a Maryland water pollution case, an Eastern Shore poultry producing company has agreed to pay $6 million for fines and safety upgrades after contaminating part of the Chincoteague Bay.

Officials with the former Hudson Foods plant have agreed to the payments to settle allegations that the company -- bought by poultry giant Tyson Foods last year for $642 million -- leaked bacteria-filled waste into a tributary of the Chincoteague, federal authorities said.

The chicken-processing plant, near Berlin in Worcester County, was said by environmental officials to have polluted the Kitts Branch waterway with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen.

The nutrients did not kill any fish or wildlife but caused unacceptable levels of contamination, federal authorities said.

A federal official confirmed yesterday that a proposed consent decree will be filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia will announce the resolution of the case today.

"It's a major environmental case for Maryland," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It's not that these pollutants caused Pfiesteria, but they did cause conditions that could have led to Pfiesteria."

Pfiesteria piscicida is the fish-killing microbe that closed three Chesapeake Bay tributaries last summer.

Some scientists think runoff from poultry farms fed the microbe and caused it occasionally to reach fatal levels for fish in Maryland waterways.

Details of the decree were sketchy last night. It is unclear how the payments will be made.

Officials stressed that the contamination occurred before Tyson Foods bought Hudson last September.

Tyson officials signed the agreement calling for payment of $4 million in penalties and $2 million for improvements at the plant, according to a government official close to the case.

Those projects include removing nitrogen from the plant's wastewater, building poultry manure sheds and treating farm fields to minimize runoff of phosphorus, they said.

The sum is considered the stiffest penalty imposed in Maryland in terms of cost to the polluter, an environmental official said.

A spokesman at Tyson, based in northwestern Arkansas 10 miles from the headquarters of the former Hudson Foods, said last night that he was unaware of the case and couldn't comment.

Tyson bought Hudson weeks after Hudson recalled a record 25 million pounds of hamburger in an E. coli contamination scare that caused it to lose its biggest customer, Burger King.

Hudson recalled the meat under government pressure after ground beef from its plant in Columbus, Neb., was found to be tainted with the bacteria.

It was the biggest meat recall in U.S. history.

Details also were unavailable on what effect the overabundance of nutrients around the Maryland poultry plant has had on the Kitts tributary.

The waters of the Chincoteague Bay usually are considered cleaner than those of other coastal waterways.

But an increase in nutrients such as those alleged to have been leaked into the Kitts Branch has been linked to the presence of Pfiesteria in coastal waters.

It has also been linked to a degradation of water quality and can have damaging effects on fish reproduction.

The issue of fertilizer and manure runoff has caused a heated controversy between farmers and scientists since the Pfiesteria outbreak last summer.

Many farmers insist there is no scientific link between Pfiesteria and the phosphorus contained in an estimated 800,000 tons of poultry manure produced on the Shore each year.

Protection of coastal bay waters has been a priority for environmental officials.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency pledged $2.4 million over seven years to help state and local officials and citizens write and carry out a plan for curbing pollution and habitat loss.

The biggest problem the bays face, according to scientists who studied them for the program, is an oversupply of nutrients chiefly caused by farm runoff.

The report was disputed by farmers who said it did not take into account what they had done to reduce runoff of fertilizer and animal manure.

Tyson had another brush with controversy recently when the company came under scrutiny in the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

Espy resigned after accepting tickets to sporting events and other favors from Tyson, a company his agency regulated.

The company has close ties to President Clinton. Four years ago, it was revealed that the company's general counsel, James Blair, suggested to Hillary Rodham Clinton that she get into the cattle futures market shortly before her husband was elected governor of Arkansas. She turned a $1,000 initial investment into nearly $100,000.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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