ANNAPOLIS — The signs were adorned with images of poultry because, when it came to advocating for environmental regulations, no one was going to play chicken.
“Pick up after yourself, Big Chicken.” “Poultry poop pollutes.” “Big Chicken should clean up its own mess … NOT Maryland taxpayers.”
These statements, emblazoned on Chesapeake Bay Foundation posters, might sound silly to the casual reader. But for environmental advocates, they represent a push to hold companies financially accountable for pollution they add to the Chesapeake Bay.
On Tuesday, Maryland legislators and contract farmers — those hired by companies to grow certain products — introduced the Poultry Litter Management Act to both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill would require major animal agriculture companies to pay the cost of properly disposing excess manure on their contract farms.
“It’s a fairness issue, it has an adverse impact on our environment and we need to clean it up,” said Sen. Joan Conway, D-Baltimore, “and those individuals who are making the mess need to clean up the mess.”
The bill is a response to what many environmentalists describe as major chicken companies getting a “free ride” as they produce around 228,000 tons of excess manure in the state each year but are not mandated to pay for the environmental costs of moving that waste.
“I don’t know if people realize that the 300-plus million chickens raised annually on Maryland’s Eastern Shore create more waste than everyone else who lives in Maryland,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery.
Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Perdue Farms, pushed back against the notion that the company — an animal agriculture business based in Salisbury, Maryland that contracts with 265 poultry producers in the state — requires their contract farms to pay to dispose poultry litter.
“For nearly 15 years through our Perdue AgriRecycle organic fertilizer facility, we have been the only poultry company in the Chesapeake Bay region that provides an environmentally responsible alternative to land application,” DeYoung wrote in an e-mail. “Those who claim that Perdue is putting the responsibility for poultry litter on our farmers are choosing to ignore this fact.”
The cost of removing the manure, and subsequent runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, has traditionally been shifted to contract farmers and taxpayers, lawmakers and environmental advocates said Tuesday.
Since 1999, more than $5.6 million from taxpayers have been used to move excess manure off contract operations that are unable to handle the animal waste, according to a report from the state’s Department of Agriculture. This includes $2.8 million alone for major chicken processor Perdue since 2008, according to the state’s Department of Budget and Management.
Maryland taxpayers have contributed $767 million to clean up the bay since 2004, according to a report from the Maryland Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee.
Also included in the bill is a provision that would ensure chicken companies find a solution to dispose of waste that is not harmful to surrounding communities or the environment, and another that allows contract farmers to retain enough chicken manure to fertilize crops.
“We are not taking away any fertilizers — valuable things that farmers use for a growing tool,” said Carole Morison, 59, a former contract grower for 23 years in Pocomoke City. “They have the opportunity to still use this manure.”
Maryland lawmakers briefed on oyster restoration project by state’s Natural Resources secretary
Other legislators, members of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, were briefed Tuesday on oyster restoration efforts, a topic that has quickly become controversial after Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, in January announced a halt of such activities in the Tred Avon River.
Led by Mark Belton, the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the briefing centered around concerns of funding restoration projects and fluctuating levels of spat, the term for oyster babies.
Intended to be managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project would involve constructing a federally funded reef project in the Tred Avon River — a 17-mile tributary on the Eastern Shore — to help reverse the declining oyster population in the state.
The decision to cease the restoration efforts came after three watermen met with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and voiced their concerns about how the project will hurt their business in the short term, according to Karis King, the media relations manager at the Department of Natural Resources.
Environmental activists and many Democratic lawmakers, including Stephen W. Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, on Tuesday seemed skeptical of the decision to delay the project.
“Why halt any efforts at this point?” Lafferty said. “What is the value?”
The Hogan Administration says they are waiting for the results of other oyster restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay before determining the next step forward. The internal review is expected in July.
“The work that was intended to be done in February was delayed,” Belton said. “It will still be able to be done … there’s no concern.”
— Capital News Service correspondent Jenn Schultz contributed to this report.