Ripples Spring 2010: Perdue’s Chickens Come Home to Roost
Kathy Phillips has a well-deserved reputation
on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for her eagle eye
as she watches over her watershed, on the
lookout for any source of
pollution. Add to that a pair
of wings—and the able assistance of veteran
Rick Dove and Waterkeeper Alliance staff
Curtis—and Phillips is even scarier. Dove
and Curtis were on a monitoring flight from the
Ocean City airport last October when they
passed over a large chicken factory farm and
saw standing water and piles of waste near
ditches that drained into the Pocomoke River,
which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Phillips collecting water samples
Phillips, Dove and Curtis took water samples the next day from a publicly accessible area near the farm and turned up a whole battery of pollutants. The factory farm, owned by Alan Hudson, raises 80,000 chickens a year under contract with Perdue.
Phillips followed up with a second flight and took more photos and water samples. “The Pocomoke River is already impaired with nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria,” Phillips says. “That’s exactly what was pouring off this facility, and the Pocomoke River was carrying it to the Chesapeake Bay.”
The Delmarva Peninsula — the land mass which makes up the eastern border of the Chesapeake Bay — is one of the major centers of chicken production in the United States. More than 500 million chickens are produced in the region each year.
While most of the chickens are shipped to consumers around the world, their waste is dumped raw onto local fields on the peninsula. This waste contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, antibiotics and metals. It seeps into local creeks, streams and rivers, contributing significantly to the destruction of the Chesapeake Bay.
Pile trenched to open waters ditch
Photo Credit: Kathy Phillips
Billions of pounds of chicken litter have flowed into the bay in the decades since international poultry conglomerates such as Perdue and Tyson targeted the Delmarva Peninsula for their multi-million-dollar operations. “The poultry industry has been treating the Chesapeake Bay like an open toilet,” says Waterkeeper Alliance’s legal director Scott Edwards.
“The Eastern Shore is one of the most abundant and productive coastal waterways in the United States,” says Phillips “If anybody's really serious about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, then these discharges have to be controlled.”
In early March, in a demonstration of just how serious Edwards and Phillips are, Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastkeeper filed a landmark federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against Perdue Farms, Inc., and the Hudson facility. The suit is the first to target Maryland’s chicken industry for violations of the Clean Water Act.
The filing followed the failure of Perdue and Hudson Farm to correct violations on the facility during a 60-day period after Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance served notice of intent to sue in December 2009. “Hudson Farm and Perdue had the opportunity to stop the pollution that puts state residents and the waterways of Maryland at great risk,” says Phillips. Rather than fix the problem, she added, “Perdue sought to create the false impression that our concerns were unfounded.”
Waterkeeper Alliance’s legal team has been working for more than three years to combat the massive pollution from the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.
Staff attorney Liane Curtis points to “outrageously irresponsible behavior on the part of industry and a lack of diligent oversight by state officials” as the primary reasons why Maryland’s waterways are in such bad shape. “As long as these types of activities continue,” she says, “we will never see a healthy and reinvigorated Chesapeake Bay.”
“It’s been a play in three acts,” says Edwards. “Act one was creating greater transparency by demanding public access to the chicken facilities’ nutrient management plans, and we succeeded there. Act two was putting some teeth into the Maryland Department of the Environment’s permitting process, and now 600 CAFOs on the Eastern Shore have been forced to get Clean Water Act permits. Our suit against Perdue and the Hudson facility is the next step—making Perdue take responsibility for the billions of pounds of chicken manure generated on the Eastern Shore each year by this industry. It’s the only way we’re ever going to protect the future of the Chesapeake and all who depend on it.”
The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, makes it illegal to discharge pollutants into U.S. waters without a permit. As part of its enforcement, the law allows for citizens to bring lawsuits against polluters.