EASTON – In 1998, in the wake of the Chesapeake Bay pfiesteria crisis, the state tightened restrictions on poultry farmers’ waste management. Now, growers worry they may face tight policing from chicken companies as well.
The latest, controversial measure, referred to as “co-permitting” by opponents, would make big poultry companies liable if their contract growers fail to comply with the 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act.
Chicken companies, such as Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Allen Family Foods, send chickens to independent growers to raise until they are ready for slaughter.
The Maryland Department of the Environment wants to make chicken companies partially responsible for the waste left behind.
Pfiesteria, a microbe blamed for a 1997 bay fish kill, is believed to thrive on excess nutrients in the water. The crisis spawned the effort to reduce nutrients in agricultural waste.
Despite assurances from the state that the new regulations won’t make policemen out of poultry companies, contract growers, who are responsible for any violations of the 1998 act, remain worried about the prospect.
“I don’t need another company to come and tell me how to run my business,” said Wayne Lambertson, a contract grower for Tyson in Pocomoke City.
Under the proposed regulation, if farmers are unable to comply with the water act, poultry companies are prohibited from shipping them chickens.
Poultry companies are not penalized under the act for their growers’ failures to meet state requirements, even though they supply the feed that goes into the chickens and the chickens themselves.
The Department of the Environment held a public hearing on the permits at Easton Senior High School Monday. There was a clear anti-bureaucracy sentiment among the chicken growers and representatives from Allen Family Foods who packed the auditorium.
The crowd cheered when a Delaware official remarked that Delaware’s nutrient management laws were not created by government officials who, “farm from behind a desk.”
Delaware does not require co-permitting, but does have a voluntary policy where the major companies agree to help the farmers.
Maryland’s objective with the proposal is to encourage poultry companies, which have more resources than the contractors, to assist the farmers with their treatment facilities.
The water act requires all farmers to have a nutrient reduction plan by this year. The state covers more than 80 percent of their costs for private consultants to help them with those plans.
By 2004, farmers must have those plans implemented.
“The farmer is out there alone under the water quality act,” said Theresa Pierno, Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokeswoman. “The concern is going to be in 2004 when the water quality act kicks in.”
Chicken executives said the plan would only add a new layer of bureaucracy, without actually helping the environment.
“This will not improve the water quality,” said Bill Satterfield, spokesman for the Delmarva Poultry Industry.
Some environmental groups accuse poultry companies of scaring farmers into opposing regulations.
“These [farmers] are all captives,” said Chris Bedford, a member of the Sierra Club. “If Allen cuts them off, they’re out of business.”
The Delmarva Poultry Industry, sent a letter to farmers warning the restrictions will “jeopardize your way of life,” written in bold letters.
The system, the way it is set up now, lets big companies “off the hook,” Bedford said.
“If they wanted to help the farmers they’d give them more for their chickens,” he said.
Growers appeared unanimous in support of the industry representatives. When Satterfield asked everyone at the hearing opposed to the regulation to stand, all but a few environmentalists did. The growers feel the water quality act should run its course before the government begins adding new restrictions. “We live under the Water Quality Improvement Act, which was hard to take,” Lambertson said. “We haven’t been given an opportunity to make it work.” Another fear is that new regulations in Maryland, which already has stricter policies than Virginia and Delaware, would make Maryland farmers less competitive.
However, the Department of the Environment is content as a frontrunner in nutrient reduction regulations.
“Maryland’s ahead of the curve on this one,” Dieter said. “And is that a bad thing? If you’re in an environmental agency, no.”
The Eastern Shore delegation is unanimously opposed to the “co-permitting” regulations, calling them both unconstitutional and unfair.
“I do predict if the MDE tries to put this into effect,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, “the Delmarva Poultry Industry will take this to court and they will win.”