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Fowl air? Lawmakers propose study to begin tracking air pollution from Maryland chicken farms

The rise of industrial-scale chicken houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in recent years has raised questions about their impact on residents’ health. Legislation pending in the General Assembly seeks to answer one of them: What are they putting into the air?

Lawmakers are weighing a study of whether huge chicken farms are polluting the air around them — a new front in an ongoing debate over how the state’s expansive poultry industry affects the environment.

The proposal, debated Wednesday in the House of Delegates, is stirring conflicts pitting economic development against public health, and scientific research versus political activism.

The poultry industry dominates state agriculture, and its representatives say farms have had to grow in response to the rising costs of complying with environmental regulation and animal welfare concerns. Modern chicken houses hold thousands of birds to supply poultry giants such as Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire Farms.

Neighbors, environmentalists and public health experts have raised concern over whether the larger scale of the operations translates to a bigger impact on the environment and public health.

In recent years the poultry industry has responded with “good neighbor” policies intended to buffer the sights, sounds and smells of modern chicken farming and to prevent water pollution. But critics say that isn’t enough, and are calling for state environmental regulators to more closely monitor what, if any, pollutants livestock farms are blowing into communities’ air — and whether they pose a threat to human health.

The proposal in Annapolis would put Maryland ahead of other states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has spent more than a decade considering livestock farms’ emissions without establishing a reliable way to estimate such potential air pollution.

Farmers already weary of environmental regulation fear a conclusion already has been reached all but declaring their chicken houses as polluters.

“I'm not opposed to studies; I’m not opposed to science,” said Andrew McLean, a chicken grower in Queen Anne’s County. “I’m opposed to this bill because it’s political science.”

Supporters of the legislation say there simply isn’t enough information to know whether, and to what degree, large chicken farms are causing or exacerbating asthma and other health problems. They say their aim is to collect data to learn if there is a health risk before any talk of new air quality controls.

“It enables the Maryland Department of the Environment to ask the question, ‘Is air quality a concern at large animal feeding operations?’” said Del. Robbyn T. Lewis, a Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the bill in the House. “It starts with a question and ends with results.”

The bill would establish a committee of eight — including experts in regulatory compliance, air pollution sampling, statistics, toxicology and epidemiology — to design a study tracking air quality in agricultural communities around the state. By next January, it would submit that plan for public comment and scientific peer review.

By October 2019, measurement of pollutants including ammonia and particulate matter would begin around a sampling of Maryland’s 245 farms classified as “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Most of them raise chickens.

Supporters say the data is needed because past studies of livestock farm emissions have focused just on what is being emitted, and not on the concentrations of pollutants to which communities are being exposed.

The EPA spent two years studying farm emissions at 27 sites across the country — none of them in Maryland — and in 2011 published research suggesting the facilities may be emitting enough pollutants to be subject to oversight provisions of the federal Clean Air Act. The agency’s inspector general raised concern last year that despite that research, no standards or protocol have been set to monitor agricultural air quality.

Some Eastern Shore residents say they have become increasingly concerned as large poultry farms have sprouted up. At a hearing on the legislation this week, Monica Brooks of Salisbury told lawmakers she worries that her daughter and granddaughter’s asthma and frequent unexplained rashes might be linked to the chicken farms around them.

“I wonder if there’s something in the air,” Brooks said. “If the industry were truly good neighbors, they would welcome this monitoring because there would be nothing to hide.”

The industry is fighting the proposal, calling it unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money. Farmers such as McLean said they and their families have been raising chickens for decades without any noticeable health effects. And they question whether the study would be fair.

“How can you possibly determine exactly where each particle of air is coming from?” asked Bobbie Reed, a chicken farmer from Caroline County. “And can you determine if each particle of air is causing asthma, which is a condition that one is born with?”

The bill is getting a frosty reception from Republicans in the General Assembly, who say they see it as an attack on rural districts’ economic engine.

“So is this the conclusion of the study, ‘We want to do away with these chicken houses?’ ” Del. Charles J. Otto, of Somerset and Worcester counties, asked the bill’s supporters at a sometimes heated, three-hour hearing on the bill Wednesday.

“There’s no conclusion in the design of an air monitoring plan,” Keeve Nachman, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, told lawmakers.

Some Republicans also dismissed concerns of NAACP leaders who support the study to promote environmental justice for poor black Eastern Shore communities.

“There is an implicit bias in favor of business and against people of color and people who have been victimized by structural poverty, so our starting point should be to recognize that people count more than profit,” said the Rev. Kobi Little, political action committee chairman for the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP.

“This bill has nothing to do with color,” responded Del. Jay A. Jacobs, an Upper Shore Republican.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has not taken a position on the bill, but state environment officials called the measure “duplicative” and said its quick timeline could sacrifice accuracy and prevent “any useful conclusions as to any effects on public health.”

The state Department of Agriculture faulted the proposal for not including any farmers in the study design process.

Del. Shane Robinson, a Montgomery County Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation, rejected any notion that the process would not be scientifically rigorous, though he said he would be open to reconsidering the membership of the committee that will plan the study.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee and also a Democrat from Montgomery County, said lawmakers would “look at all the science and all the information” in deciding what to do with the proposal. A companion bill introduced by another Montgomery Democrat, Sen. Richard Madaleno, is pending in the Senate.

“I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen with the bill,” Barve said. “It garnered more interest than I thought it would.”

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