A month after environmental groups alleged that an Eastern Shore chicken farm was polluting a Chesapeake Bay tributary, state regulators have yet to test the fouled waterway or the pile of sewage sludge said to be contaminating it, officials have acknowledged.
Robert M. Summers, deputy secretary of the environment, said the owner of the farm near Berlin has refused to allow inspectors to take samples of the pile or of the water in a drainage ditch running through his property. Summers said the department had mailed the farmer a letter Friday and warned that the state would seek a search warrant if he did not permit sampling.
The disclosure that no testing has been done on the farm comes after a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment told reporters more than two weeks ago that inspectors had collected samples and that most of the sludge pile had been removed to a local landfill. Dawn Stoltzfus, the spokeswoman, confirmed last week that both statements were in error after the environmental groups alleged the department had given out inaccurate information.
The Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance on Dec. 18 formally notified Alan and Kristin Hudson and Perdue Farms, the Salisbury-based poultry company for which the Hudsons raise chickens, that they intend to sue over alleged water pollution violations at the farm.
Calls to the Hudsons have not been answered or returned. A Perdue spokesman has denied the poultry company has anything to do with the issue, saying that the farmers are independent contractors.
The groups originally alleged, based on aerial photographs, that a pile of chicken manure on the farm was draining into a ditch that feeds into the Pocomoke River. They said tests they'd taken of water in the ditch downstream from the farm registered high levels of disease-causing bacteria consistent with animal manure, as well as nutrients of the type fouling the bay and toxic arsenic.
A few days later, an MDE spokesman said an inspector who'd visited the farm had determined that the pile was not chicken manure, but "biosolids." That's a form of sewage sludge that is supposed to be treated to kill harmful bacteria before it can be used as a fertilizer.
MDE's Stoltzfus subsequently told reporters that "we are taking some water samples" and that 80 percent of the pile had been removed to a nearby sanitary landfill. She corrected that information last week, saying the pile had been moved back from the ditch to reduce the risk of pollution and that the farmer had refused to allow samples to be taken.
The keeper groups, part of an international coalition of water-quality watchdog organizations, have been sparring publicly with state officials for weeks over the adequacy of state enforcement of water pollution laws, and more recently over the pile on the poultry farm. Farm runoff is a leading source of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay, officials say, and chicken farms, and the manure their flocks produce, a major source on the Eastern Shore.
Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, which is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, called it "mind-boggling" that state inspectors have yet to test the ditch or the pile. More recent water samples taken by her group have found that bacteria levels in the water have dropped since the pile was moved farther away, she said. But they remained above what's considered safe for human contact, she pointed out.
Phillips questioned the state's resolve to enforce pollution laws where the state's lucrative poultry industry is involved.
"I can't imagine any other industry in the state being able to say to the agency that holds their permit, 'You can't come in, you can't sample,' " she said.
Summers defended the state's actions to date, saying that inspectors first ordered the pile moved away from the ditch to prevent or reduce further pollution.
"Our priority always is to eliminate the source and stabilize the situation and then proceed to investigation and enforcement," he said. Later, on Dec. 29, at the state's request, an inspector from the Worcester County Health Department visited the farm to collect samples, but was denied permission, Summers said.
The deputy secretary said his agency would use its legal authority to test the water and the pile, but he also insisted officials do not need the samples to take enforcement action. Based on visual inspection, he said, the sludge had been improperly kept uncovered and too close to the ditch.
"There was clearly a loss of material to the water," Summers said, adding that, "Whether you put biosolids there or chicken manure, we've got a pollution problem." Summers said state inspectors also are checking the source of the sludge, the Ocean City wastewater treatment plant and other piles it distributed to area farmers.
Stoltzfus, the MDE spokeswoman, said Ocean City has stopped shipping its treated biosolids to local farmers for use as fertilizer and is disposing of all of it in the Worcester landfill. Town officials did not return calls seeking comment.
"We're on it - we're all over it," the deputy secretary said. "I think there's still plenty of time to do a very good, thorough investigation here, and we have a lot of authority to deal with this. ... So, I think it will be taken care of."