Judge denies state attempt to make processors get rid of poultry waste

Industry calls decision `victory for family farms'

August 27, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

An administrative law judge has rejected the Maryland Department of the Environment's efforts to make poultry processing companies responsible for getting rid of the excess manure generated by their contract chicken growers.

The decision by Judge Neile S. Friedman in the so-called "co-permitting" process is being celebrated by the industry in Maryland and elsewhere as an elimination of a serious threat to the poultry business.

"It's a victory for family farms in Maryland," said Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue Farms Inc., the giant Salisbury-headquartered poultry company that is supplied by about 500 chicken growers in the state.

Richard L. Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council in Washington, called the decision "a slam dunk" for the industry, and said that had Department of the Environment efforts been upheld they could have set a precedent for other states.

Through modifications of the poultry companies' wastewater discharge permits, the department was attempting to make chicken processors responsible for helping growers dispose of litter - a mixture of sawdust and manure - from their farms.

In a 38-page opinion, Friedman wrote that the department's approach was "particularly troublesome" in that it was "specifically rejected by the legislature."

She said the General Assembly did not authorize the Department of the Environment to require poultry companies to provide compliance assistance to farmers for disposition of excess poultry litter.

The ruling, which came late Friday, is technically a recommendation to the secretary of the department.

The procedure had been challenged by Perdue, Allen Family Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., all of which operate plants in Maryland.

John Verrico, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, said the agency was reviewing the judge's ruling, "and no decision has been made on what we will do next."

Verrico said that an appeal was possible.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor's office has not seen the decision and did not want to say what the state's next step would be.

Poultry industry officials said the regulations would have further damaged an industry already under pressure from reduced exports to Russia and other parts of the world, and from the lowest poultry prices in about 20 years.

They said it would put Maryland's big poultry industry at a competitive disadvantage and threaten the jobs of more than 2,000 growers and process plant workers.

Poultry is Maryland's largest agricultural business, accounting for nearly a third of all farm sales in the state last year.

"It would have made Maryland processors liable for the actions of private, independent growers," said William Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group that represents the region's poultry industry.

Michael Pilcher, vice president of Allen Family Foods, which operates two processing plants on Maryland's Eastern Shore, said the state plan would have created an extra layer of regulations.

Satterfield said it would be impossible for Maryland processors to pass any increased cost from the co-permitting plan on to their customers.

Such an attempt, he said, would open the door to companies in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia to ship chicken into to this region and take over the market.

Chicken farmers use some of the litter as manure in growing corn and soybeans for chicken meal. Runoff from fields in which chicken manure is used has been blamed for fouling streams and damaging fish and plant life in the Chesapeake Bay and its Eastern Shore tributaries.

It was suspected of causing the outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997 that forced the closing of parts of some rivers, causing a serious setback to the state's tourism and seafood industries.

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