This State Is Playing Chicken With Poultry Pollution

Maryland's governor is threatening to veto a tax on birds that would help keep the Chesapeake Bay clean.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Here are two ways you can quantify the chicken industry in Maryland, No. 10 on the list of the National Chicken Council’s top poultry-producing states in 2012. The amount of manure generated by the some 300 million birds raised in Maryland every year would double the height of the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium if it were spread over the playing field.

Conversely, you can think of those 300 million chickens as, potentially, the proposed $15 million in funds conservationists are asking for in legislation to keep pollution out of the Chesapeake Bay. Which, in a way, is a chickenshit figure too, as much of the waste generated by the poultry industry is used liberally as a fertilizer on Maryland farms. It’s a practice that, thanks to runoff, has led to damagingly high levels of phosphorus and other nutrients running through the state’s waterways and into the bay. Agricultural pollution in the Chesapeake is a major contributor to the algae blooms and subsequent dead zones that threaten the native fish and shellfish stocks, including those famed Maryland crabs.

It’s the former image that the state’s Democratic governor is sticking with—that is, if his lack of support for a policy that could make the latter a reality is anything to judge by.

State legislators who would prefer to protect the bay recently came up with the Poultry Fair Share Act. Under that bill, widely known as the chicken tax, the poultry industry would have to pay 5 cents per bird to the Department of Agriculture’s Cost Share Program. Revenue from the tax would fund the planting of cover crops, which block runoff and enrich soil, on farms that have used chicken manure, and help fund replacements for failing septic systems that leech nitrogen into the groundwater.

 But despite his green bona fides as a supporter of clean energy and a politician who talks about climate change, Gov. Martin O’Malley is siding with his state’s largest industry, agriculture. At an event earlier this week, he made it clear that he would veto the bill if it passed.

“The truth of the matter is, we’re all one Maryland. We’re all in this together, and we cannot survive as a state unless agriculture is profitable in our state,” the governor said. “I will tell you this—read my lips—if that chicken bill passes, I will veto it.”

The state’s $600 million seafood industry and its iconic blue crab catch apparently do not figure in the governor’s idea of such an in-it-together Maryland.

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