Poultry industry cleanup speeded by Tyson accord Settlement will force Shore chicken farms to control pollution

EPA faster than Md. law

May 09, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael James and Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

A giant Arkansas-based poultry producer and its Delmarva chicken farmers are being forced to speed up pollution controls, reducing potentially harmful runoff faster than a new Maryland law requires.

The action results from a $6 million settlement of federal charges that a subsidiary's Eastern Shore poultry plant polluted Chincoteague Bay.

Under the agreement announced yesterday by the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Tyson Foods Inc. will have to take cleanup actions that extend far beyond the Hudson Foods plant in Berlin that was the alleged source of the bacteria- and ammonia-laden pollution.

Not only will the settlement affect other Tyson plants in the mid-Atlantic region, but its reach will be felt all the way back to the family farms where the company's chickens are raised.

Federal and state regulators indicated that the settlement -- the largest ever in a Maryland water pollution case -- could set a pattern for possible future enforcement actions against poultry companies.

"This is an important case with regard to this company but will have broader implications for how we address nutrient management in the future," said Jane T. Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The $6 million settlement includes $4 million in civil fines and $2 million in company funds that must be spent on of pollution-abatement projects.

Several of the provisions of the agreement closely track legislation passed by the General Assembly last month to combat outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria in Maryland waters. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign the bill into law Tuesday.

One part of the agreement will apparently force Tyson to require hundreds of chicken farmers in Maryland and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay region to quickly adopt plans to control the runoff of nutrients from their properties.

The nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen contained in chicken manure, are a major source of water quality problems. An EPA official said the nutrient management plans, which would have to be in place in two to three years, must employ manure disposal methods that reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into the water. Phosphorus-based plans would not have to be adopted until 2004 under the Maryland bill.

To prevent the pollution reduction burden from falling on the hard-pressed "growers" who raise chickens under contract to the company, the agreement requires Tyson to spend up to $300,000 to cover the cost of adopting plans.

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson, the world's largest poultry producer, said in a statement yesterday that it had already begun a program of requiring such plans.

Additional provisions

Another provision will require Tyson to spend $600,000 to add phytase, an enzyme that cuts the phosphorus content of chicken manure, to its feed within six months of a judge's approval of the agreement. That is almost two years earlier than a similar mandate in the Maryland bill.

Other provisions require $1.1 million in spending to build manure storage sheds, treat chicken manure to inhibit phosphorus runoff and to reduce nitrogen pollution at plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

EPA Administrator Carol N. Browner said the agency tries to craft solutions that end up producing less pollution overall, even if that means taking steps that go beyond correcting the original violation.

For example, she said, "General Motors now runs a clunkers program to get cars that pollute off the road" as part of a settlement involving some Cadillacs' failure to meet auto emissions standards.

Maryland regulators took a similar approach last year in a case charging that Perdue Farms violated its pollution discharge permit at a facility in Worcester County. As part of the settlement, Perdue agreed to upgrade a wastewater treatment facility and preserve 50 acres of wetlands.

"Our focus in an enforcement effort is to right the wrong that was done," said Browner. "In this case, where you had a history of practices that caused polluted runoff into the waters of the region, our goal was to reduce the overall pollution."

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said the penalties are the toughest in Maryland's history and send a message to the poultry industry that polluters will have to bear heavy costs. She said Tyson is responsible for the payments even though it took control of Hudson only in January.

Company spokesman Archie Schaffer said Tyson knew about the violations and the pending settlement when it acquired Hudson. He said Tyson is "pleased to have this matter resolved, or will be after the court approves it."

A federal judge must approve the settlement after a public comment period before it can go into effect.

Effects of pollution

The effect of the plant's pollution is difficult to determine. Federal officials said yesterday that there were no dramatic signs of damage, such as fish kills or injured wildlife. The pollutants are unrelated to the Pfiesteria outbreaks on the Chesapeake Bay last summer.

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