Cows, rather than chickens, caused the pollution for which an Eastern Shore farm couple and Perdue are being sued, contends a witness for the Salisbury-based poultry company.
Charles Hagedorn, a microbiology professor from Virginia Tech, told a federal judge Monday that a small herd of cattle grazing on Alan and Kristin Hudson's farm near Berlin were the sole source of high levels of bacteria and nutrients found in drainage ditches there.
"These counts - and they are high - came from the cattle," Hagedorn testified.
But a lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance pressed Hagedorn to acknowledge that manure blown by large ventilation fans out of the Hudsons' two poultry houses could also have reached the ditches, contributing to the pollution.
"Anything is possible," Hagedorn said. "I'm just not convinced it was feasible."
Hagedorn's testimony came two weeks into as the second week began of the trial in U.S. District Court of a lawsuit by the Waterkeeper Alliance accusing the Hudsons' and Perdue of polluting a Chesapeake Bay tributary with runoff from the farm's flock of 80,000 Cornish hens. The environmental group contends the poultry company is also liable because the Hudsons were raising the birds under contract to Perdue and that the company controlled virtually every aspect of the operation.
Perdue's lawyers have denied the compnay controls the Hudsons' farm. They also contend that runoff of cattle manure, which they say was neither illegal or regulated, was the source of the pollution.
Hagedorn said that the Hudsons' herd of about 40 adult cows - not counting about 20 calves that court records indicate also were raised there - would have generated about 3,000 pounds of manure a day. Such large quantities of manure - some of it deposited on the banks of a drainage ditch, according to a photo shown in court - had to be the source of the pollution, Hagedorn said.
The microbiologist, called by Perdue as an expert witness, contended that he saw no evidence when he visited the Hudsons' farm that would lead him to believe enough manure could have been tracked out of the poultry houses by vehicles or feet, or blown out by the large fans, to foul a nearby drainage ditch.
But Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland environmental law clinic, which is representing the New York-based environmental group, quizzed Hagedorn about a study that measured about 3 1/2 pounds of dust blown daily from a chicken house with a much smaller flock of birds than the Hudsons'. Under her questioning, he acknowledged that extrapolating the study's findings to the 80,000 birds kept on the Shore farm would suggest up to 10 pounds of dust were being blown out of those houses daily.
She had previously gotten him to agree that such dust likley included nutrients and bacteria from the animals' manure, as well as bits of skin and feathers.
Hagedorn insisted, though, that the quantities of dust he saw on the ground beneath the fans outside the Hudsons' chicken houses were too small to pollute a nearby drainage ditch. Grass in the drainage swale between the houses would consume whatever nutrients might have been blown out of the houses, he contended.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance and his deputy secretary, Mary Ellen Setting, attended the trial Monday morning, and went up to shake Alan Hudson's hand when the proceeding broke for lunch. Hance said they were there to demonstrate their support for the Hudsons and Perdue.
Hance initially brushed off this reporter's questions about Perdue's contention that cattle on the Hudsons' farm were polluting the water, saying, "The lawsuit's about the chickens." He said the Maryland Department of the Environment, not his department, has responsiblity to enforce state and federal pollution laws. The agriculture department does enforce the state's nutrient management law, though, and Hance deferred questions about that to his program managers when asked about evidence presented in the trial that the Hudsons had not maintained required records of how much manure they spread on their fields.
Later, as he left the courtroom in downtown Baltimore, Hance said his staff had "taken steps to help Mr. Hudson" deal with the cattle manure runoff on his farm. He also acknowledged that new regulations adopted recently by his department requiring farmers to take steps to keep livestock away from water were aimed at such circumstances. The Maryland Farm Bureau had vehemently opposed those rules, contending they were onerous and unnecessary.
Food & Water Watch, another environmental group not involved in the lawsuit, pointed out in a blog post Monday that Alan Hudson had acknowledged while testifying last week that a "comprehensive nutrient management plan" prepared for his farm had been altered to remove suggestions that he'd applied too much phosphorus to his fields and that he take steps to reduce or eliminate the possibility of manure blown from the chicken houses by fans from getting into the drainage ditch.
"If MDE and MDA were doing their jobs, there wouldn't be pollution pouring off this farm and there couldn't have been a lawsuit," contended Scott Edwards, an attorney with the Washington-based group. He contended that the state's inadequate investigation of the Hudson farm and its lax oversight made it "as much of a problem as is Perdue and its contract grower."