Maryland's dirty secrets

January 24, 2008|By Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Howard Ernst

The Chesapeake Bay, where we learned to swim, fish and crab, is dying. And despite millions of taxpayer dollars spent on research and reporting, there has been little action to hold polluters accountable for poisoning our beloved bay.

Drive around the country roads of the Delmarva Peninsula and you will find the leading source of the desecration of the bay and its estuarine tributaries: toxic animal waste piled outside chicken houses, sprayed over fields and running into the ditches, creeks and streams that flow to the Chesapeake.

For too long, Maryland's commercial chicken industry has been using the Chesapeake Bay, once a global treasure, as its personal dumping ground for illicit and harmful wastes. Billions of pounds of chicken litter have flowed into the bay in the decades since international poultry conglomerates such as Perdue and Tyson located their multimillion-dollar operations in the Delmarva Peninsula.

The destruction of our waterways by factory farms is illegal under this nation's environmental laws, which contemplate transparency and cooperative enforcement among the federal government, state environmental agencies and citizens. Yet too many of Maryland's political leaders and poultry industry officials have partnered in a carefully choreographed dance around the many legal tools designed to protect our precious water resources. Together, they've succeeded in undermining all levels of safeguards to ensure that the poultry industry can continue to act in secrecy and without accountability.

On the federal level, the Clean Water Act provides a framework for holding polluters accountable by requiring all dischargers to obtain permits to control harmful substances. Factory chicken producers are no exception. Yet, defying federal law, Maryland holds out as one of the last states in the country not to require these pollution permits for poultry facilities; a draft permit released this month by Maryland's Department of the Environment that is purported to comply with federal laws falls woefully short.

While much of the authority to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act is delegated to state environmental agencies such as MDE, Maryland's 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act wrested oversight of chicken farms away from MDE in favor of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, essentially allowing the poultry industry to self-regulate and the Chesapeake Bay to slowly waste away.

Perhaps most egregiously, Maryland's citizens are being denied their fundamental rights under this political-industrial compact. Under current law, Maryland chicken farmers must file nutrient management plans with the MDA, describing how they control and dispose of their billion pounds of chicken waste each year. In states across the country, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, these plans are public documents that empower citizens with an invaluable tool to monitor irresponsible behavior and allow for citizen enforcement of environmental regulations. Yet the MDA shields the poultry industry by refusing to make nutrient management plans public.

Why the secrecy? Why are there no federally required permits for poultry operations in Maryland? And why can't state citizens gain access to public documents? There are no permits to review and no records to inspect. Maryland's poultry industry is operating under a state-sponsored cloak of darkness designed to protect it from any scrutiny.

It is time to shine a light on improper industry practices. Allowing public access to nutrient management plans is the first step in empowering citizens to protect their communities and waterways. The many chicken growers that are acting responsibly have nothing to fear from the transparency that would be gained by allowing public access to waste-disposal plans. And those in the industry who pollute our waters or fail to develop and properly implement waste-disposal plans would rightfully be subject to enforcement by state and federal government, or citizens, for their illegal activities.

The bay and our local waters are not privately owned commodities. Maryland's citizens have the right to clean water and healthy communities, and this right depends on public knowledge of where and how the largest industry on the Eastern Shore is disposing of its waste.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Howard Ernst, author of "Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay," is senior scholar at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

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