The Chesapeake Bay Is a Polluted Mess: Are Chickens to Blame?

Chicken farmers in Maryland are sued over manure disposal.

Is this guy and thousands of his friends responsible for the Chesapeake Bay's pollution? (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Chickens outnumber people 1,000 to 1 on Maryland’s eastern shore, and this soaring chicken-to-human ratio has a major drawback: manure.

Environmental advocates say that manure from hundreds of chicken farms can seep undiluted into the Chesapeake Bay, one of the nation’s most vulnerable waterways. Chicken manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus, two major polluters of the Bay and its environs.

Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based advocacy organization, has filed a lawsuit against a Maryland farm that raises chickens for Perdue, the nation’s third-largest poultry company. Waterkeeper maintains that the farm polluted a nearby river with chicken manure, in a violation of the Clean Water Act.

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The trial began Tuesday, October 9 in federal court in Baltimore. Although the lawsuit is against a single farm, owned by the Hudson family, the outcome of the trial will have possible ramifications for the poultry industry that is clustered on the Delmarva Peninsula, a long spit of land that encompasses parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. 

More than 1,660 family farms raise chickens for five industrial-scale poultry companies that operate on the Peninsula, according to the Baltimore Sun. In 2008, chicken farms in this area produced 1.5 billion pounds of manure, more than the human waste produced by New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Atlanta combined.

Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental organizations have argued that Perdue should be held responsible for pollution and other environmental costs associated with chicken discharge from smaller-scale farms like the Hudson’s.

“Right now, growers like the Hudsons have full responsible for managing the waste. The big companies like Perdue own the chickens and the profits, but they aren’t responsible for the pollution,” Michele Merkel, codirector of Food and Water Justice, a project of Food & Water Watch, told TakePart. 

Lawyers for Perdue and the Hudson family deny that the manure is getting out of the Hudson farm in large enough quantities to pollute, the AP reported.

Nitrogen pollution from animal waste is a serious environmental concern because it causes algae blooms that eat up the Bay’s oxygen, often leading to the death of fish and shellfish in oxygen-thin waters.

Approximately 300 million pounds of nitrogen pollution enter the Chesapeake Bay each year and are drained into 64,000 square miles of the Bay watershed covering six states.

When chicken manure isn’t properly disposed of, it can be washed into the Bay as sediment. Sediment compounds the problem of pollution in the watershed because it reduces the amount of light that can travel through the water column, says Chris Moore, a science advocate with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“Submerged vegetation is especially susceptible to light. If enough light can’t penetrate to the plants, the habitat is in danger, as are the young fish and crabs that hide in the aquatic grasses. We’ve lost a tremendous amount of aquatic vegetation, along with animals like oysters,” Moore told TakePart.

Whether the trial will have any impact on chicken manure in the Chesapeake Bay remains to be seen. The judge is set to hear testimony for the next three weeks, so stay tuned for a rigorous (and costly) defense from Big Chicken. (Perdue’s annual sales top 4.6 billion).

But Merkel and her colleagues at Food and Water Justice have high hopes. “The case has two purposes,” Merkel says. “One is to stop pollution from the Hudson farm, and the other is to establish the legal precedent that poultry integrators, these companies that contract with these growers, cannot hide behind farmily farms to escape responsibility for pollution.”

What is the best way to curb pollution in Chesapeake Bay? Should chicken companies be held accountable for manure? 

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