Environmental groups filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, accusing an Eastern Shore chicken farm and poultry giant Perdue Farms of polluting waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
The Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance contends that harmful levels of bacteria and nutrient pollution are flowing from a drainage ditch on the farm into a branch of the Pocomoke River.
The lawsuit - the first to target Maryland's chicken industry for water pollution - was filed two months after the groups warned Perdue and Hudson Farms in Berlin that they would sue after spotting what appeared to be chicken manure draining into the ditch. The Maryland Department of the Environment later said the pile was made up of 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 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," said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. "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 with 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 is investigating whether Hudson Farms is polluting. Regulators will base their decision on whether to take enforcement action on the results of that investigation, the agency said.
The Assateague 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 their intent to sue.
Perdue demanded a public apology after the groups misidentified the pile as chicken manure instead of treated sewage sludge. Perdue also threatened to sue the environmental groups for alleging that it has any responsibility for the farm.
Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said the groups are seeking to hold Perdue accountable because of the control the company exerts on chicken growers through its contracts.
"Basically, Perdue owns every phase of these operations," Edwards said. "It's their chickens. The farmer is just baby-sitting them for several weeks. The only thing they [Perdue] try to escape ownership of is the waste."
State inspectors visited the farm repeatedly after the Waterkeeper Alliance expressed concerns, MDE officials 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 environmental groups say that state water samples taken from the ditches running through the farm in late January - more than a month after the groups