FARM act would aid polluters in Md. and beyond

Editor’s note: A photo previously displayed with this op-ed referred to an unrelated 2013 story. It has been replaced.

Imagine living next to a giant facility housing millions of chickens. It’s not only a very unpleasant thought, but it’s also a potentially very dangerous experience.

The animals inside are packed so closely together that ventilation fans are needed to remove the noxious gases created by their waste, otherwise the chickens could die from overexposure. Unrestricted, the fans blast these gases — including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide — outside. The exhaust blows over to schools, churches and playgrounds, putting families and wildlife in harm’s way.

And if the factory farming industry gets its way, families living near these facilities will no longer know if the air they breathe is safe.

Congress is currently debating the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act, a bill that would exempt industrial animal feeding operations from reporting hazardous emissions that can cause respiratory disease and other health problems. If Congress passes this bill, members will be helping these polluters hide their dirty work.

The bill was introduced at the behest of corporate agribusiness, not family farmers. Industry lobbyists claim that the legislation will bring clarity, but what it really does is further deregulate an industry that is poorly regulated to begin with. Worse, these billion-dollar corporations externalize the expense of the much needed monitoring and reporting on to their contracted growers — and taxpayers like me.

As the poultry industry expands across Maryland’s Eastern Shore where I live, crop fields and small diverse farms are being replaced with chicken growing factories, each covering an area the size of a Super Walmart, that can grow half a million chickens at a time. Family farmers in the area are facing a new reality: Industrial-scale poultry production will soon make it economically impossible for small family farms to compete.

The expanding reach of industrial poultry facilities could make breathing toxic air the way of life for many on the peninsula, especially if this act passes.

I am hoping my Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who has not yet taken a stance on the FARM Act, will meet with the communities on Delmarva’s lower Eastern Shore affected by the proposed legislation. And I would urge the bill’s Democratic sponsors, like Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, to also listen to the concerned citizens on Delmarva.

Community members like Sam Berley of Princess Anne, who lives right next to six huge 600-foot by 67-foot chicken houses. There are more than 90 huge, unfiltered exhaust fans blowing ammonia directly into his backyard. Within just a three-mile radius of Mr. Berley's home, there are 100 chicken houses emitting ammonia into the air daily.

Under this new legislation, Mr. Berley wouldn’t know if the air he breathes every day is safe enough to allow his grandchildren to play outside when they visit. In nearby Wicomico County, one in four children has asthma — they live in a county that has some of the highest concentrations of industrial scale poultry houses on the shore.

The gases also deposit onto the land and drift into waterways, threatening water quality, the environment and public health. Smaller family farms near these poultry facilities face threats to their crops. High concentrations of ammonia can also harm vegetation, and ammonia deposition to our waterways leads to eutrophication and algal blooms, threatening our Maryland Blue Crab.

Everyone has a right to clean air and clean water, including the families and species that call Delmarva home. Congress should protect people and wildlife threatened by the pollution from these facilities, not just the profits of these corporate polluters.

Kathy Phillips (coastkeeper@actforbays.org) is the Assateague COASTKEEPER, an on-the-water advocate who patrols and protects the Maryland and Northern Virginia Eastern Shore coastal watershed.

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