Waterkeeper vs. Perdue Over Chicken Manure in the Chesapeake Bay


Activists rally outside Baltimore's Federal District Court. Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch.

A landmark trial opens today in Baltimore’s Federal District Court, where Waterkeeper Alliance has filed suit against Perdue Farms, one of the country’s largest chicken producers, and one of the company’s farmer contractors, Alan and Kristin Hudson, for polluting the Chesapeake Bay by way of Maryland’s Pocomoke River.

The case dates back to October 2009, when environmentalists from Waterkeeper and two other groups (Choptank Riverkeeper and Assateague Coastkeeper) spotted a large mound near the Hudson’s poultry houses, draining into a ditch that ran into the river, during a aerial monitoring flight. (Such aerial surveillance is also carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency, though industry groups and politicians have challenged the practice, even through legislation like West Virginia’s proposed Farmer’s Privacy Act, which would require the agency to obtain permission from the landowner before conducting flyovers.) The environmental groups subsequently tested water samples downstream from the farm and found high levels of pollutants. In January 2010, the Maryland Department of the Environment tested waters upstream and downstream from the farm, finding much lower levels of pollutants upstream than down -- especially fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria, which tested off the charts in the downstream samples. Waterkeeper and others filed suit in March of 2010.

A website for the Hudsons (SaveFarmFamilies.org) contends that the pile spotted from the plane was not chicken manure but actually fertilizer obtained from Ocean City, and meant to be spread as fertilizer on the Hudson’s land. Typically, owners of such large scale poultry operations are left with hundreds of tons of manure -- much more waste than their land can readily absorb. The site, which was set up by someone using a Perdue-owned IP address (through a proxy site), paints the picture of a family farm persecuted by radical "out-of-state" environmentalists, but Food & Water Watch director Wenonah Hauter describes the site as an "astroturf" endeavor to draw public sympathy for the Hudsons, who she describes as "human shields" for Perdue. At the press conference, she explained:

When this case was filed in 2010 Perdue was enjoying $4.6 billion in sales while Alan Hudson was driving a school bus to make ends meet. If Perdue really cared about farmers like the Hudsons, they've had the opportunity for almost three years now to stand up and say "this is our waste and our problem." Instead, they've chosen to once more hide behind the false guise of the family farmer and hold the Hudsons out as the only ones responsible for the mess created by Perdue’s own industrial chicken empire. Perdue owns the chickens, the feed and the profits. The Hudsons, apparently, own Perdue’s waste — and Perdue is fighting hard to keep it that way.

The website also links to a letter from Maryland’s Governor Martin O'Malley, denouncing the Maryland Law Clinic for its involvement in the ongoing litigation, but earlier this year, Food & Water Watch revealed an extremely close relationship between the governor and Perdue, and published over 70 emails between O'Malley and a high-level executive at the poultry company, obtained through a Public Information Act request. The Baltimore Sun reported that around the time the emails started, Perdue started giving to the Democratic Governors' Association, which is headed by guess who? O'Malley. (The company had formerly given to the Republican Governors' Association.) And what about the Chesapeake Bay? Meg Cronin of Environment Maryland, had this to say:

Chicken manure is one of the largest pollution sources in the Chesapeake, contributing to the dead zones we see every summer in up to one third of the Bay. We are never going to have a clean Bay if we don’t take agriculture pollution seriously and if we don’t hold corporate agribusiness accountable. This is a local treasure that we all share, we can’t let the mess of the few lead to a loss for so many.

Will the suit hold water (no pun intended)? Back in January, a case brought by the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment (CARE) against the Nelson Faria Dairy in Washington State was found in favor of the environmentalists, but the case was based on a 2006 settlement between CARE and the (previous) owners of the dairy operation and suffice it to say, the chicken industry is structured much differently than dairy. Here at Ecocentric, we have complained ad nauseum about the environmental havoc wreaked by industrial livestock production, and we've bemoaned the status of the Chesapeake Bay, even as we delight in its blue crabs. Given our interest in the matter, we'll watch closely as the trial proceeds and follow up here, hopefully with good news for the Bay.