Environmental groups filed suit in federal court Tuesday accusing an Eastern Shore chicken farm and poultry giant Perdue Farms with polluting waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
The Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance contend that harmful levels of bacteria and nutrient pollution are flowing from a drainage ditch on the farm into a branch of the Pocomoke River, a bay tributary.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, comes two months after the environmental groups formally warned Hudson Farms in Berlin and Perdue that it would sue them for water pollution violations after spotting an uncovered pile of what the groups said appeared to be chicken manure draining into the ditch. The Maryland Department of the Environment later said the pile was treated "biosolids" from the Ocean City sewage treatment plant.
Whatever the source, the groups say their sampling as well as tests of the ditch by state inspectors show pollution still coming from the farm, despite measures ordered by the state to halt or prevent it.
"The Pocomoke River is already impaired with nitrogen, phosphorus, e-coli and fecal coliform bacteria, Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper said. "That's exactly what we have pouring off this facility, and the Pocomoke River is carrying it to the Chesapeake Bay."
The farm near Berlin, owned by Alan and Kristin Hudson, raises 80,000 chickens a year under contract for Perdue. The facility is regulated by the state as a "concentrated animal feeding operation," which requires the farm to get a pollution discharge permit much like a factory or sewage plant.
"The Chesapeake Bay is in trouble enough already," Phillips said. "If we have to go after it one polluting point-source at a time, that's what we'll do."
Perdue spokesman Luis Luna said the company has no comment on the lawsuit. The Hudsons could not be reached for comment.
The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a statement saying it has an "ongoing investigation" into whether Hudson Farms was polluting. Regulators will base their decision whether to take enforcement action on the results of that investigation, the agency statement said.
The coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of water-quality watchdog groups, have carried on a war of words with Perdue since giving the company and the farm 60 days' notice of its intent to sue. Perdue has demanded a public apology of the groups for misidentifying the pile as chicken manure instead of treated sewage sludge. The company also threatened to sue the environmental groups for alleging it has any responsibility for the farm. The Hudsons raise chickens under contract with the company.
But Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said the groups seek to hold Perdue accountable as well because of the control the company exerts on chicken growers through its contracts with them.
"Basically, Perdue owns every phase of these operations," Edwards said. "It's their chickens. The farmer is just babysitting them for several weeks. The only thing they [Perdue] try to escape ownership of is the waste."
State inspectors visited the farm repeatedly after being notified by the Waterkeeper Alliance of its concerns, MDE said. Moving and covering the pile and other steps the farm was ordered to take "ensured that the material was no longer in a position to possibly pollute waterways." But the groups say state water samples taken from the ditches running through the farm in late January — more than a month after the groups first publicized the issue — still showed high levels of harmful bacteria and nutrients present.
To see a copy of the lawsuit, click here.