Lawyers squared off one last time Friday in a packed Baltimore courtroom to wrap up the long-running trial of a bitterly contested pollution lawsuit with ramifications for water cleanup efforts and the poultry industry in Maryland and nationwide.
Jane Barrett, the lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance, told U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson that the New York-based environmental group had amassed overwhelming evidence during more than two weeks of testimony in October that chicken manure from Alan and Kristin Hudson's farm near Berlin had washed into a drainage ditch that ultimately empties into the Pocomoke River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
But lawyers for the Hudsons and for Perdue countered that the environmental group had failed to make the case that the high levels of disease-causing bacteria found in the ditch came from chicken manure.
Michael Schatzow, representing the Salisbury-based poultry company, accused the Waterkeeper group of "overreaching and exaggeration" and said there was no evidence of chicken manure leaving the farm. The pollution in the ditch came from cows also being raised on the Hudsons' farm, he said, which he contended was not subject to regulation and not in any way connected to Perdue.
George Ritchie, the lawyer for the farm couple, said his clients had been caught in the middle of a war the Waterkeeper group has launched against the poultry industry. He warned that an unfavorable ruling would be a "death penalty" for his clients, forcing the fourth-generation farmers to sell their property to pay any penalties and legal expenses.
The case has drawn widespread attention, as farmers across the country have rallied behind the Hudsons, portraying the lawsuit as an attack on small family farmers by a well-heeled environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Environmentalists have cast the case as a critical test of whether large poultry companies such as Perdue can be held accountable for pollution caused by the growers raising their birds. The Hudsons raise 80,000 Cornish game hens at a time under contract to Perdue, which supplies the animals, the feed and closely oversees their care in two long "houses."
"They're following this case in Atlanta, Mississippi, everywhere," said Bill Brown, a poultry extension agent with the University of Delaware, who came to hear the closing arguments. Others filling the courtroom benches included farmers, Maryland's Agriculture Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance, environmental activists, and faculty and students from the University of Maryland School of Law, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Waterkeeper group through its environmental law clinic. Barrett is the clinic's director.
The law school's role in the case has added to the controversy, as Gov. Martin O'Malley has criticized his alma mater for hauling the farm couple into court, and Eastern Shore legislators led an effort to cut the school's funding. Lawyers groups, academics and environmentalists in turn have denounced political interference in the legal process.
Nickerson made clear before closing arguments that he hoped to have a written decision by year's end or soon after.
Much of the nearly four hours of closing arguments was spent sparring over the credibility of each side's expert witness, whose conflicting testimony was central to the case, the judge indicated.
Charles Hagedorn, a microbiology professor from Virginia Tech, Perdue's expert, had contended that manure dropped by the Hudsons' 42 roaming cows was the source of the high bacteria and nutrient pollution found in the ditches.
But Bruce Bell, an environmental engineer from Monroe, N.Y., who testified for the Waterkeeper group, said chickens contributed to the ditch contamination and probably were the major source. He testified that dried manure had been blown out of the Hudsons' chicken houses by large ventilation fans and tracked out by equipment and people.
The Waterkeeper group's lawyer contended the physical layout of the farm — with a shallow swale and pipe between the Hudsons' two poultry houses that drained to the contaminated ditch — also made it clear that chicken manure was contributing to the pollution.
Schatzow, Perdue's lawyer, questioned why the environmental group hadn't done more testing to pin down its allegations, and he said that a ruling in the Waterkeepers' favor would wreak havoc on poultry farming across the Delmarva Peninsula.
"Every chicken house has fans," he told reporters after the case concluded.
Barrett countered that there were steps the Hudsons could have taken to prevent pollution, which other farmers have taken. While acknowledging that the lawsuit was an ordeal for the couple, she said the Waterkeeper group was intent on clean water, not lining its pockets with monetary damages. She said federal law provides for citizens and groups to sue to stop pollution when regulators fail to act.
After the proceeding, in remarks to reporters, she said the trial "illustrated in multiple ways the inadequacy of state regulation."
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