84% of MD Poultry Operations Failed Water Pollution Control Inspections from 2017-2020 But Only 2% Paid Fines

New Reports Connect Lax State Oversight to Continuing High Phosphorus and Algae Levels in Eastern Shore Rivers

FOR RELEASE: Thursday, October 28, 2021
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org

Washington, D.C. – Eighty four percent of the 182 Maryland poultry operations inspected by the state between 2017 and 2020 had one or more violations of their state water pollution control permits. But only four facilities – or two percent of the total—paid penalties, according to public records reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project.

About two thirds of the poultry operations that failed inspections had a waste management problem, such as manure left outside where rain can wash it into waterways, inadequate waste storage facilities, or unsanitary disposal of dead chickens.

And more than half of the poultry farms for which records were available in 2019 reported to the state that they spread manure on their crops in amounts greater than allowed under their nutrient management plans, which is illegal. However, the state imposed no penalties for these violations.

Maryland’s lack of enforcement of the poultry industry has had a damaging impact on the Eastern Shore’s waterways, where phosphorus pollution and algae levels have not improved over the last two decades, according to a pair of reports by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “Blind Eye to Big Chicken” and “Stagnant Waters.”

“If we are ever going to meet our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, Maryland is going to have to get serious about its oversight of the poultry industry, start penalizing chronic waste violations and holding the big poultry companies accountable,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.

“Right now, Maryland regulators routinely ignore overapplication of poultry manure to fields above levels authorized by farm nutrient management plans, even when it’s reported by the farms themselves to the state,” said Schaeffer. “The state’s ‘oversight’ system is really just an empty paperwork exercise without even the reality check of state soil or air sampling at poultry farms.”

Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said: “The Maryland Department of Agriculture and Maryland Department of the Environment have clearly shown that they value industrial poultry operations over clean water and air, and the health of people. Communities on the Eastern Shore deserve better. We need a transition to sustainable agriculture that provides good jobs and protects public health.”

The reports are based on an examination of more than 5,000 pages of Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspection reports and Annual Implementation Reports filed with the Maryland Department of the Agriculture (MDA) by poultry farmers, as well as state water quality monitoring data. Public records are limited to poultry operations that apply waste to their own fields, while the majority of poultry litter generated every year is shipped offsite for use by other farms.

EIP’s report, “Blind Eye to Big Chicken,” documents how Maryland’s program to limit water pollution from poultry operations is riddled with gaps that make it nearly impossible to hold the industry accountable for pollution.

The number of poultry farms inspected by MDE on an annual basis has fallen by 40 percent since 2013, even as the number of permitted operations has grown slightly, according to state records. MDE inspected an average of 218 operations a year from 2013 through 2017, but only 134 per year from 2018 through 2020, with the decline predating the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than two-thirds of poultry operations were not inspected at all between 2017 and 2020, state records show. To make matters worse, when state inspectors do show up, they are not allowed to take soil samples to determine whether fields are saturated with nutrients and likely to run off into public waterways. State inspectors also do not sample for ammonia air pollution from the exhaust fans of poultry houses, and they do not routinely test water from nearby streams and ditches.  In short, the state’s inspections are limited to observing obvious problems – like uncovered manure piles open to rain and wind – and to review of the operator’s own records.

Among the findings of EIP’s reports are the following:

  • Fifty one percent (or 29 of 57) of the poultry operations for which public records were available in 2019 reported to the state that they had applied manure to their crop fields in amounts above the limits in their nutrient management plans, which would make it illegal. However, none of them was fined by the state for this violation.
  • Eighty-four percent of poultry farms (153 of 182) failed MDE inspections from June 2017 to November 2020, most because of a combination of waste management problems and record keeping failures.  Almost half (43 percent, or 78 of 182) also failed follow-up inspections. Another 321 were not inspected during this period.
  • The most common waste management failures found by inspectors at poultry operations from 2017 to 2020 were inadequate manure storage facilities (on 66 farms), unsanitary handling of dead birds (48 farms), and waste left outside in paved work areas (31 farms).
  • Despite these frequent violations, penalties from the state are rare. MDE imposed fines on only eight of the 78 poultry farms with repeat violations from 2017 to 2020, and actually collected the fines on only four of these eight.  Three of those penalties collected were for $250 each, and one was for $2,000.

The poultry industry’s impact on the Eastern Shore’s waterways is significant. Concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen in the shore’s waterways – in part from poultry manure – were more than double benchmark levels for healthy waters from 2018 to 2020, exceeding these standards by 135 for phosphorus and 127 percent for nitrogen, according to state monitoring data.  These nutrients fed summer algae blooms that were almost four times higher than healthy levels.

A recent assessment by scientists working with the EPA-led Chesapeake Bay Program concluded that the cleanup of the Bay is behind schedule and that – at the current pace — it will take 180 years for the estuary to meet water quality standards.

Maryland’s program is designed to minimize the burden for poultry operators, and some may lack the resources needed to handle the huge manure piles generated by millions of chickens.  But virtually all of the Eastern Shore’s poultry production is driven by contracts with big companies like Tyson Foods, Mountaire, and Perdue Farms, with combined annual revenues that exceed $50 billion per year.

“Until poultry integrators are held accountable for the waste generated by their contract growers, we will be hard pressed to keep that waste out of public waters,” said Kathy Phillips, Executive Director, Assateague Coastkeeper. “Maryland needs to do more to crack down on not only the chronic overapplication of manure to fields, but also the large amounts of ammonia air pollution that rises from these facilities and pollutes the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays and their tributaries.”

Maria Payan, Co-Founder of a public health advocacy group called Sentinels of Eastern Shore Health, said: “These reports reinforce our concerns for years on the Lower Eastern Shore. If we ever intend to seriously improve our water quality and soils, MDE must do more frequent oversight and enforcement. We must do better. “

EIP’s reports make the following recommendations:

  • MDE and MDA should more frequently impose – and then actually collect – penalties against poultry operations that fail to meet the requirements of their water pollution control permits or fail to comply with their nutrient management plans. These fines should also be extended to the big poultry companies that exert extensive control over their contract growers. Penalties are likely to remain low and inconsequential as long as the state imposes them only on the farmers and not on the integrators.
  • Maryland should vigorously enforce the state’s new manure application rules, called the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), which took full effect on July 1. As part of the oversight of these rules, Maryland should allow MDA and MDE inspectors to take soil samples from fields to perform a reality check on self-reported compliance information.
  • Farms that import manure from poultry operators and spread it on their own fields should be required to file annual reports to demonstrate that manure spreading complies with nutrient management plans and the PMT.
  • MDE should hire more inspectors for animal feeding operations, so that the agency can scrutinize them more than just once every five years and make sure they are complying with the requirements of their permits.
  • The state should increase water and air monitoring around poultry operations, especially by adding a series of ammonia monitors at operations with neighbors immediately downwind.
  • MDE should revise and strengthen its general water pollution control permits for animal feeding operations so that they work to control ammonia air emissions.  Permit requirements should include the installation of ammonia pollution control systems, such as “scrubbers,” and the maintenance of thick buffers of trees surrounding poultry houses.

For a copy of the “Blind Eye to Big Chicken” report, click here.  For a copy of the “Stagnant Waters” report, click here.