Efforts to restore Maryland’s waterways are failing as policymakers refuse to take the actions necessary to control nutrients and sediment from farms. Agriculture overwhelms all other pollution sources on the Eastern Shore, contributing the majority of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that are fueling dead zones, smothering oysters, preventing regeneration of critical bay grasses and causing flesh-eating diseases.
No actions that will improve water quality are cheaper and more effective than regulating farm operations for manure and chemical fertilizers. The good news is that reducing farm pollutants is the cheapest per pound to reduce of all pollution sources. The bad news is that agriculture is the least regulated and most politically difficult to address with Big Chicken’s spending every year in Annapolis.
Fifty years ago, the use of raw chicken manure as fertilizer on small farms was a free asset to the farmer. But in Worcester County, the broiler industry left farmers with 88 million pounds of raw manure to dispose of and a decreasing land area on which to use it. This manure now becomes an economic burden for the individual farmer, while the industry turns its back.
In 2019, the 609 million chickens raised in Delmarva’s 5,000 chicken houses produced 900 million pounds of raw manure, with most disposed of untreated on already phosphorus-saturated farmland where none should be applied. Beyond the manure running off to pollute public waters, chicken production requires the growing of thousands of acres of nitrogen-intensive corn and soybeans to feed the chickens. Poultry accounts for 60 percent of Maryland’s gross agricultural income and a high percentage of pollutants on Delmarva. No longer serving the communities they inhabit, the industry has become so industrialized that, in 2019, nearly $3 billion in broilers were exported, making the United States No. 2 in global chicken exports.
A comprehensive report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that Delmarva poultry operations also produce huge amounts of unregulated ammonia emissions that pollute waterways. Industrial-scale chicken houses — windowless, airplane hangar-like structures often twice the length of a football field — have large exhaust fans that blow out ammonia from the poultry waste. These air emissions, combined with ammonia from chicken manure spread on farm fields, break down in the atmosphere, adding 12 million pounds of nitrogen to land and water annually. Coupled with manure runoff, poultry operations now contribute 25 percent of all farm nitrogen in Maryland.
The ammonia from Delmarva poultry operations triggers coughing, asthma attacks and throat inflammation. A 2018 Johns Hopkins study found that people living near Pennsylvania poultry houses are 66 percent more likely to be diagnosed with pneumonia. In Wicomico County, a top Maryland broiler-producing county, adult emergency room visits for asthma are double the state rate.
Maryland is far behind in meeting its mandatory agricultural nitrogen reductions planned for 2025 and did not meet them for 2019. Without aggressively regulating manure, it will fail to meet these important reductions.
Often overlooked are the serious public health problems. The coronavirus crisis exposed to all that the explosion of poultry houses has caused serious public health and environmental justice hot spots in rural communities. Institutional racism prevails. Fence-line communities, usually populated by racial minorities, are victims of health and contamination problems from poultry house air pollution and well water contamination.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that 15 percent of Delmarva drinking water wells contained unsafe nitrate levels and have among the highest nitrate and herbicide concentrations in the nation. The major sources of this excessive nitrogen are chicken and other animal manure and chemical fertilizers.
Recognizing that we can’t have clean water without addressing the system that willingly victimizes one portion of the population to the benefit of another, the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) joined forces with the NAACP and community groups to successfully protest a permit that would have allowed 3 million chickens to be grown directly on top of a community’s drinking-water source. The local government apparently didn’t give a second thought to placing this polluting industrial facility in the middle of a community that was 80 percent African American.
ACT recommends the following changes be instituted, based on consultation with environmental scientists and leading Bay advocates:
● Develop plans for environmentally sound manure reuse/disposal with costs shared by corporate chicken processors, growers and government;
● Regulate placing manure on farmland the same as for cleansed biosolids from advanced human wastewater treatment plants: no manure on phosphorus saturated soils; manure incorporated into soils within 24 hours; and 200-foot setbacks from waterways;
● Require chicken-house exhaust fans to have filters to remove ammonia;
● Expand animal operation permits to all but the smallest operators with enforcement assured by environmental departments, not agriculture departments;
● On-site inspection by independent third-party entities to ensure effectiveness of these permits;
● Require whole-farm water-quality plans using next-generation nutrient management, clear targets and enforcement; and
● Adopt requirements for cumulative impact assessments through all state agency permitting.
Maryland politicians must overcome their inability to take on the dominating chicken production giants and adopt these sensible measures. Until quantifiable reductions of agricultural pollution can be accomplished, a moratorium on all new construction of, and expansion of existing poultry animal feeding operations must be instituted immediately.