Poultry farm permit plan spurs debate

Easton hearing to address proposal on waste disposal

Protest mailings launched

Regulation would require companies to help growers

January 27, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Proposed regulations that would make Maryland's poultry processing companies responsible for helping their growers get rid of excess chicken waste have stirred a storm of opposition from farmers and poultry companies and staunch support from environmental groups.

A public hearing on the regulations scheduled for Monday night in Easton promises to be contentious.

Chicken farmers, fearful that the regulations would hurt them, have mailed a blizzard of form protest letters to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has placed a form letter supporting the regulations on its Web site, offering to "fax it free" to MDE for site visitors.

Jim Dieter, program manager for MDE's wastewater management division, which would administer the regulations, said yesterday his department has received more than 300 letters from each side in the dispute.

The letters from farmers, which claim the requirements would force many of them out of business, demonstrate that "there's a lot of misunderstanding" about the permits, said Dieter.

"There's a lot of inflammatory information, misinformation out there, and our mission is to correct that," he said.

The regulations were drawn up by the MDE after negotiations with poultry industry representatives failed to reach an agreement.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced last month the nation's first program to issue wastewater discharge permits that require the big chicken companies which operate processing plants on the Eastern Shore - Perdue Farms Inc., Allen Family Foods and Tyson Foods Inc. - to give contract growers the "technology and assistance" to properly dispose of the mix of sawdust and manure known as litter.

Part of cleanup effort

The governor said then it was part of an effort to clean up polluted waters.

The multibillion-dollar poultry industry on Maryland's Eastern Shore raises more than 300 million chickens annually, which produce about 700 million pounds of manure, much of which is spread on farm fields as fertilizer.

The chicken waste has been blamed for fouling streams when excess nitrogen washes off the fields, damaging fish and plant life in the waters and potentially leading to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida.

The state's Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, triggered by the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak in the Pocomoke River on the lower Eastern Shore, required farmers to draft plans by 2004 to limit chicken waste used as fertilizer and safely dispose of the rest. The new requirements calling for chicken processors, known as "integrators," to help has run into stiff opposition from the farmers and processors.

The bay foundation's letter says the requirements will "hold those who contribute to the problem accountable" and ensure that small farmers would "not be alone in meeting the requirements" of the water quality act.

But Bill Satterfield, of the Delmarva Poultry Institute, argued that the regulations would make an integrator responsible for a farmer who uses commercial fertilizer on his field because it requires the company to help with the "total nutrient management plan."

Moreover, they would give integrators control over the farm operations "outside the chicken house," and could lead to integrators canceling contracts with farmers they fear may get them in trouble over plans to control runoff, he said.

Chicken farmers operate under agreements in which the companies own the birds and the farmers are responsible for other costs, including disposing of the litter. State officials announced in March 1999 they would seek regulations to hold the integrators jointly responsible for the manure.

The MDE and the processors negotiated for nearly a year before talks broke down because the processors objected to enforcement provisions.

Exaggerated claims

The MDE's Dieter said claims that companies would be held responsible for farmers who fail to meet chicken waste control plans are exaggerated.

The permits do not hold the integrator responsible for the farmer's water quality violations, he said. But they forbid an integrator to ship any more birds to a farmer who has been convicted of a violation until the violation is corrected.

The state Department of Agriculture administers a farmer's plans to control chicken waste runoff and refers violations to the MDE only if the farmer "does not make good-faith efforts to make improvements," Dieter said. "There's nothing precipitous about this."

In addition to Monday's public hearing, the MDE has scheduled meetings for Tuesday and Feb. 5 in Berlin.

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