Environmentalists have long argued that so-called "factory farms" are major sources of water pollution because hundreds and even thousands of chickens, hogs or cattle are raised in close quarters, without adequate measures to keep the massive amounts of waste generated from washing into nearby streams.
Federal and state governments have tightened regulation of large-scale animal farms, requiring many to get pollution discharge permits and take precautions to prevent fertilizer from washing into nearby streams.
Activists want to extend legal responsibility for that waste from the farmers tending the animals to the large vertically integrated meat production companies like Perdue, for which the growers work under contract. In the poultry industry, the companies own the birds, furnish the feed and often dictate how they're to be raised. But the waste left behind by the flocks is the farmer's to deal with.
Poultry companies have balked at taking responsibility for the waste. And many farmers argue that without the chicken manure they'd have to pay for chemical fertilizer to use on their fields.
But environmentalists contend there's too much manure being generated by the large flocks for farmers to use it all properly. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the animal waste washes off fields into nearby streams, contributing to algae blooms and the formation every year of a massive "dead zone" in the middle of the bay.
Patrick A. Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, said a ruling against Perdue would be a first, but cautioned that his reading of the court record so far leaves him wondering if the Waterkeeper Alliance can prove pollution came from the farm.
"The difficulty of proving a discharge here looks like it could be significant," he said. "The plaintiff has the burden of proof. … And Judge Nickerson has signaled the plaintiffs have a problem. They'd better come forward with some convincing evidence."
It's rare, but Parenteau said he knows of one failed pollution lawsuit where a judge "socked" an environmental group to pay the other side's legal expenses.
"It's a shame that it's gone this far," said Lee Richardson, who raises chickens for Perdue on his farm near Willards in Wicomico County. He said the case has left him and other farmers feeling threatened.
The Assateague Coastal Trust's Jones, a retired Salisbury University biologist, said the lawsuit isn't meant to threaten farmers, and he acknowledges that Perdue has been more "environmentally sensitive" than other poultry companies.
"What's being ignored here are the environmental impacts," said Jones. "Some way we've got to solve this. We've got to break this jogjam."
An earlier version misstated the number of cows the Hudsons own. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error. firstname.lastname@example.org
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