BERLIN -- People in Berlin know a lot about the poultry industry. And one thing they know is that often it is a dirty business, or at least a smelly one.
After all, this is a town where one of the local banks burns scented candles on Friday afternoons to cover the smell that clings to the clothes of plant workers who cash their paychecks there.
Nearly three years ago, residents came together to form Berlin Citizens for Clean Air when the stench from the Hudson Foods processing plant that lies just north of the town became so bad that people were forced indoors for relief provided only by air conditioning.
What the neighborhood activists didn't know was that from 1993 to 1997, the plant, which is owned by the Arkansas-based industry giant Tyson Foods, was apparently polluting Kitts Branch. The meandering stream empties into Trappe Creek and, ultimately, Chincoteague Bay.
Yesterday, federal authorities announced that Tyson had agreed pay $4 million in fines and $2 million for anti-pollution equipment and programs in its operations regionwide.
Environmental authorities won the settlement after contending that the plant, under Hudson management, had polluted local waterways with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen. About 450 people work in the plant, which slaughters 1 million birds a week.
It is the most severe penalty for a water pollution case in Maryland.
"This is the first we've heard about water pollution," said Mary Moore, who helped organize her neighbors to protest odor problems in 1995. "I can say that I am not surprised in the least. We were dealing with a different problem, but the smell was incredible. You can't imagine how bad it was unless you were here."
Moore, who has been a municipal planning board member for 14 years, said the town of about 3,000 is undergoing fundamental change. It is home to the Tyson plant as well as a grain storage unit of Perdue Inc. and a pet-food processing operation.
Berlin has long been a commercial hub for farmers, but its identity is changing because of its proximity to Ocean City and an influx of newcomers bent on preserving the town's charm, Moore said.
Even critics agree that the smell from the plant, which was built more than 30 years ago, has been dramatically reduced and that Tyson has been cooperative since taking over the complex in January. Some see the federal settlement as a demonstration that the $1-billion-a-year Maryland poultry industry is willing to take responsibility for its impact on its neighbors. "I think this is good news for people here because we know the problems are going to be cleaned up," said James G. Barrett, a Worcester County commissioner who owns a Berlin car dealership. "I see this as a commitment to make improvements that are necessary."
According to a legal agreement signed by Tyson officials, the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, the company will spend $50,000 on new technology to reduce the nitrogen-laden ammonia in the Berlin plant's waste water. The wastes flow into Kitts Branch, which feeds Trappe Creek. From the creek, it flows into Chincoteague Bay, where the region's most lush sea-grass meadows shelter abundant clams and fish.
Because the bay has only two inlets linking it to the ocean, wastes dumped into its waters tend to stay in the area a long time -- more than two months, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
In the case of the Berlin plant, nitrogen from chicken manure and other plant waste can help fuel algae blooms, which can damage grasses and reduce oxygen levels in the water, sometimes to levels so low that fish are harmed. A 1993 survey found high algae levels in about one-twelfth of the bay's area, according to the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
Steve Taylor is director of the program, a federally funded effort to protect Chincoteague and the other waterways that lie between the mainland and the barrier islands such as Assateague. Taylor was "elated" yesterday about the settlement, which he said will help protect the "fragile, shallow system" that begins at Kitts Branch.
Pub Date: 5/09/98