State sues Tyson Foods for polluting $536,000 in fines sought from Shore poultry producer

Tons of sludge dumped

Chicken waste spread on land as recently as last month

July 24, 1998|By Heather Dewar and Chris Guy | Heather Dewar and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SNOW HILL — An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly reported the total fine that the state is seeking from Tyson Foods Inc. in a lawsuit over alleged improper disposal of chicken waste. The amount is $5.37 million.

The Sun regrets the error.

SNOW HILL -- Charging the nation's largest poultry producer with improperly dumping nearly 26,000 tons of sludge, state environmental officials went to court yesterday in an attempt to force Tyson Foods Inc. to pay nearly $536,000 in water pollution fines.

In a suit filed in Worcester County Circuit Court, the Maryland Department of the Environment accused the Arkansas-based company of putting chicken waste from its Berlin plant on a 105-acre open field in the county.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The sludge was rich in nitrogen and phosphorus -- nutrients that pollute Maryland rivers and bays and have been linked to last summer's outbreak of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida. It was spread on the land and injected into the soil during an 18-month period that began in January 1997 and ended last month.

It was the second time in three months that Tyson has faced heavy penalties for alleged violations of environmental laws. In May, the company agreed to pay $6 million -- the largest fine ever imposed in a Maryland water pollution case -- for contaminants that flowed from the Berlin plant into Kitts Branch when the plant was owned by Hudson Foods Inc.

In May, Tyson spokesmen said the company was complying with all anti-pollution laws. But the MDE lawsuit claims that as late as last month, plant operators were deliberately dumping far more chicken waste than the land could absorb on the property they called "the farm."

"Tyson has knowingly and willingly used the farm as a waste disposal site" in violation of state law, said MDE spokesman Quentin Banks.

"MDE must take decisive action when violations are willful and jeopardize the health of important watersheds like the Pocomoke River," said MDE Secretary Jane Nishida.

Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson did not respond to repeated requests for comment yesterday.

Banks said the sludge, called "Hudgro" in company documents, was treated as though it was fertilizer for the property's crops, when it fact it was a pollutant laden with unneeded nutrients and potentially dangerous metals.

The company injected the sludge as much as eight inches underground, where it posed the risk of contaminating ground water with nitrate, a nitrogen by-product that is potentially poisonous to humans and livestock.

In some cases, the sludge was spread on ground where no crops were planted, even when the soil was frozen or covered with water, MDE's lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit says the company dumped about 530 pounds of nitrogen per acre and 1,587 pounds of phosphorus per acre -- about three times as much nitrogen and 12 times as much phosphorus as local farmers use on corn, the most fertilizer-intensive of the area's crops.

"No farmer in his or her right mind would apply that much nitrogen or phosphorus to a farm field, whether there were crops there or not," said Tom Grasso, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The actions of the company in this case are in stark contrast to what we have seen over the years -- Maryland farmers making every effort to clean up the bay."

The suit charges that Hudson, which operated the plant until Tyson bought it last year, never had a permit to dispose of sludge. A permit granted to Hudson in 1991 only allowed discharge of treated waste water into nearby Kitts Creek, the suit says.

State officials acknowledge they were frustrated after a series of meetings with the company, including a three-hour closed-door session Tuesday, failed to produce agreement on the amount Tyson would pay in fines.

The state is asking the court to impose fines of $10,000 per day from Jan. 4, 1997, until last month, when Tyson agreed to stop spreading the sludge. MDE officials also want a ruling that would permanently halt the use of sludge at the site, along U.S. 50 just a few miles from Ocean City.

Mary Moore, a community activist who helped organize Berlin Citizens for Clean Air three years ago, said residents have wondered for years about the sludge dumping operation.

"That field was absolutely fallow for the last two years," Moore said. "They were just dumping stuff right there along Route 50. It didn't make any sense."

MDE officials say they warned Tyson on April 30 the operation posed an environmental threat.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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