Maryland's largest poultry company owners reacted with outrage yesterday after state officials completed new regulations that will hold the businesses responsible for water pollution caused by chicken manure.
The regulations, believed to be the first of their kind in the country, will require poultry companies to verify that their growers have plans for getting rid of manure without causing polluted runoff. Such pollutants have been blamed for fish kills and are suspected of triggering toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria in 1997.
William Satterfield, executive director of the trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., called the action by the state Department of the Environment "a threat to Maryland's small family farms, the chicken industry and all businesses in Maryland."
State officials said they expect a legal challenge to the new requirements, which are being written into the companies' operating permits for their processing plants.
MDE and industry officials said they believe Maryland is the first state in the nation to hold companies responsible for their growers' waste.
Farmers traditionally have gotten rid of chicken manure by spreading it on fields as a fertilizer. But many Eastern Shore fields are so saturated with the waste that it runs off into rivers and streams, where it can cause algae blooms and fish kills.
Until now, manure disposal has been a problem left to the contract farmers who raise the birds for the processing companies. But that changed yesterday, when MDE issued its final version of the new permits for plants operated by Perdue Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and Allen Family Foods.
If growers are having problems coming up with a disposal plan, the companies are required to help them. If a contract grower violates state water-quality laws, the company cannot ship that grower any more chicks to raise until the problem is fixed.
Companies that don't comply with the new rules will be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and could face fines of up to $27,000 per violation per day, said J. James Dieter of MDE's wastewater permits division.
But legal action could indefinitely delay the new requirements, known as "co-permitting." Anyone who thinks he or she is "adversely affected" has until Aug. 8 to request an administrative appeal, Dieter said.
"We have had some indications from some of the poultry companies that they will appeal," Dieter said, and in that case, the new requirements would be on hold until the appeal is settled.
Perdue spokesman Tita Cherrier said the company is "considering all the avenues that are open to us to challenge the co-permitting requirements."
John Chlada, Perdue's director of environmental services, said the new rules will force small growers out of business. He said the poultry companies might stop doing business with many small growers because it will be too difficult to monitor them under the regulations.
At public hearings in January and February, companies and growers protested the proposal.
Now that the rule has become final, the agency is scheduling two more "informational meetings" about the new requirements. They will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday at Parkside High School in Salisbury and from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. July 25 at Easton High School, Dieter said.