POCOMOKE CITY // The chickens that Willis Redden raises in steel buildings longer than Navy destroyers produce at least 2 million pounds of manure a year. That's as much as a city of 25,000 people produces.
Redden, a fourth-generation farmer, spreads the litter on corn and soybean fields near a sandy creek that flows into the Pocomoke River and then the Chesapeake Bay. But no one ever comes to check whether the manure is getting into the stream - even though scientists say chickens are responsible for 10 percent of the pollution running into the bay from Maryland.
As concerns about water pollution from the poultry industry have grown, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and at least nine other states have begun requiring large chicken farms to get the same kind of pollution control permits as factories. Animal feeding operations with these permits are inspected once a year, must follow a long list of waste management rules, and face fines of up to $32,500 per violation per day for allowing manure into streams.
Maryland requires these permits for dairy and hog farms - but not poultry. The raising of chickens was exempted when Maryland's regulations were written more than a decade ago. The poultry industry has since defeated two attempts to require more oversight and liability for pollution.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration says it plans to draft regulations that would for the first time require permits for large chicken farms and inspections by the Maryland Department of the Environment. But the administration has offered few specifics. And the industry has made clear that it will oppose industrial-style pollution regulations, arguing that farms don't pollute as factories do.
"The poultry industry has been flying under the radar screen. And Maryland is completely abdicating its responsibility to enforce the federal Clean Water Act," said Michele Merkel, a former Environmental Protection Agency attorney now with the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.
How much regulation?
At issue is how much to regulate an industry that produces about 1 billion pounds of waste a year but is also an economic and political force on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Perdue Farms, the largest chicken company in the East, is based in Salisbury. Also, the industry employs about 16,000 people on the Delmarva Peninsula, annually selling 567 million chickens worth about $1.6 billion, records show.
Farmers who raise chickens in Maryland - as well as grain and vegetable growers who use poultry litter as fertilizer - receive minimal, if any, oversight from the state.
A Maryland law passed in 1998 requires the owners of large farms to have "nutrient management plans" designed to prevent pollution by minimizing the amount of fertilizer spread on crops.
Chicken farmers - who tend to dispose of their manure by putting it on fields or giving it to other farmers - must report to the state how many chickens they have, how much manure is produced and where that fertilizer is spread.
The state has recommendations for how a poultry operation should limit runoff into streams, but not requirements.
The agency responsible for making sure farmers have fertilizer plans is the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which has its primary mission helping farmers, not the Department of the Environment, which is charged with enforcing pollution laws.
Sue duPont, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the agency is trying to check up on about 10 percent of the state's 6,273 large farms this year to make sure they have their required paperwork. Two farmers have been fined $350 - the maximum penalty under the law - for not having nutrient plans. These state visits are announced in advance and do not include sampling of fields, manure piles or nearby streams to see if pollution is escaping, she acknowledged.
Poultry companies say this oversight is enough. "When we look at the state regulations in place, they are sufficient ... to protect the environment," said Julie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Perdue Farms.
Farmers argue that fines of up to $32,500 and annual inspections by the pollution police at the state's environmental agency would be overkill. Some also object to the more rigorous rules in factory-style permits, such as the mandate that they allow "zero discharge" to streams, avoid outdoor storage of manure, limit offensive odors, allow state sampling of groundwater, report spills and expose their records to public scrutiny.
Unlike chicken farms in Maryland today, animal feeding operations with these permits could be hauled into court by neighbors or environmental groups if they fail to follow the rules. And they would be subject to public hearings before they opened or expanded.
Redden, who has 150,000 chickens in six windowless houses east of Pocomoke City, says the fertilizer plans required under current state law are enough.