Cloud grows over chicken farm flap

That pile of stuff making a figurative stink on an Eastern Shore chicken farm?  The one environmental groups said was polluting a Chesapeake Bay tributary?  It's treated sewage sludge from Ocean City, not poultry manure.

That's the latest from the Maryland Department of the Environment.  Department spokesman Jay Apperson emailed Tuesday that an inspection has confirmed what Perdue Farms and an Ocean City town official both have been saying - that the Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance misidentified the light-colored mound they saw from the air on the Hudson farm near Berlin.

The two groups threatened last week to sue Alan Hudson and Perdue Farms, accusing them of allowing polluted runoff from the farm to contaminate a drainage ditch that ultimately feeds into the Pocomoke River.  The keepers released an aerial photograph (seen above) showing a large pile of something between a storage shed and a drainage ditch, with water draining from the pile to the ditch.  Perdue got dragged into it because Hudson raises birds under contract with the Salisbury-based company.

Farm runoff is clearly a major source of nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay, according to government and independent scientists.  Some environmentalists have long argued that farms dealing in chicken manure need to be regulated more tightly to limit polluted runoff, that the loose, largely voluntary controls employed to date have not worked.  But the picture has grown a bit murky, at least with this particular farm.

Perdue, the owner of the chickens raised on the Hudson farm and the third largest poultry producer in the United States, is demanding an apology from the two environmental groups.

"We recommend the Waterkeepers check their facts before they make allegations that can damage reputations," Perdue spokesman Luis Luna wrote in an email. "The right thing for them to do at this point is issue a retraction and an apology."

Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips, though, is unapologetic.  "It's not about the pile," she said. "It's about what's coming off the farm. It's about what's polluting the water." 

MDE spokesman Apperson says the state is still investigating water quality conditions at the farm.  Treated sludge, known bureaucratically as "Class A biosolid," is heat-pasteurized to kill bacteria, and is generally considered safe enough to sell over the counter as fertilizer in any home store.  But even so, it shouldn't be getitng into the water, he added.

Could the treated sludge be the source of bacteria readings in the ditch, or could they be coming from something or someplace else?  Phillips insists that the Waterkeepers sampled the ditch as near the farm as possible without trespassing, and the bacteria readings were sky-high, indicative of relatively untreated animal - or human - waste.

Some are suggesting the environmentallists were wrong even about that - that the high bacteria counts could have come from wild animal droppings.  Certainly waterfowl and other animal droppings can foul a cove or pond.  Others think that unlikely in this case.

Meanwhile, Perdue is playing public-relations chicken with the Waterkeepers.  The poultry industry  has long chafed at allegations that farms, especially chicken farms, are polluting the bay, and has resisted government efforts to hold it accountable for the manure generated by its birds on farms run by contract growers.  Now, in accusing the Waterkeepers of jumping to conclusions about the nature of the pile, Perdue is implying they're wrong about a lot more. 

The mistaken identification of the pile is perhaps understandable.  At certain times of the year, the sights and smells of poultry manure being piled and spread on farm fields on the Eastern Shore are hard to miss.  But poultry litter - the mixture of manure and wood shavings cleaned out of chicken houses - is generally darker than the light-colored mound seen in the photos. 

This is the second miscue in recent weeks by the Waterkeepers, who in another report repeated without checking erroneous information that there had been multiple water pollution violations at the University of Maryland's Horn Point environmental laboratory.  (As did I, in reporting on the keepers' broader complaints about lax oversight of industries and sewage plants).

In that case, as in this one, the errors were played down by the Waterkeepers as minor glitches in otherwise compelling arguments for cracking down on polluters.  What gets lost in the kerfluffle over the pile of stuff on the Eastern Shore farm, they say, is that the water there is funky. 

That may be so, but in order to get it cleaned up, the source or sources of contamination must be clearly identified.  It seems that it'll take an investigation by the state - or possibly even a lawsuit - to find out if the Waterkeepers are right in their claim that this farm is an example of the larger problem of poorly regulated farm runoff fouling the Chesapeake Bay.  If manure - even human sewage sludge - is found to be washing off the farm, they'll be vindicated, of course.  If not, then some farmers and poultry industry representatives are sure to portray this as more evidence, if they needed it, that they're being persecuted.  With much at stake, the case of the misidentified manure pile clouds the issue for now. 

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