A giant Arkansas-based poultry producer and its Delmarva chicken farmers are being forced to speed up pollution controls, reducing potentially harmful runoff faster than a new Maryland law requires.
The action results from a $6 million settlement of federal charges that a subsidiary's Eastern Shore poultry plant polluted Chincoteague Bay.
Under the agreement announced yesterday by the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Tyson Foods Inc. will have to take cleanup actions that extend far beyond the Hudson Foods plant in Berlin that was the alleged source of the bacteria- and ammonia-laden pollution.
Not only will the settlement affect other Tyson plants in the mid-Atlantic region, but its reach will be felt all the way back to the family farms where the company's chickens are raised.
Federal and state regulators indicated that the settlement -- the largest ever in a Maryland water pollution case -- could set a pattern for possible future enforcement actions against poultry companies.
"This is an important case with regard to this company but will have broader implications for how we address nutrient management in the future," said Jane T. Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The $6 million settlement includes $4 million in civil fines and $2 million in company funds that must be spent on of pollution-abatement projects.
Several of the provisions of the agreement closely track legislation passed by the General Assembly last month to combat outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria in Maryland waters. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign the bill into law Tuesday.
One part of the agreement will apparently force Tyson to require hundreds of chicken farmers in Maryland and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay region to quickly adopt plans to control the runoff of nutrients from their properties.
The nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen contained in chicken manure, are a major source of water quality problems. An EPA official said the nutrient management plans, which would have to be in place in two to three years, must employ manure disposal methods that reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into the water. Phosphorus-based plans would not have to be adopted until 2004 under the Maryland bill.
To prevent the pollution reduction burden from falling on the hard-pressed "growers" who raise chickens under contract to the company, the agreement requires Tyson to spend up to $300,000 to cover the cost of adopting plans.
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson, the world's largest poultry producer, said in a statement yesterday that it had already begun a program of requiring such plans.
Another provision will require Tyson to spend $600,000 to add phytase, an enzyme that cuts the phosphorus content of chicken manure, to its feed within six months of a judge's approval of the agreement. That is almost two years earlier than a similar mandate in the Maryland bill.
Other provisions require $1.1 million in spending to build manure storage sheds, treat chicken manure to inhibit phosphorus runoff and to reduce nitrogen pollution at plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
EPA Administrator Carol N. Browner said the agency tries to craft solutions that end up producing less pollution overall, even if that means taking steps that go beyond correcting the original violation.
For example, she said, "General Motors now runs a clunkers program to get cars that pollute off the road" as part of a settlement involving some Cadillacs' failure to meet auto emissions standards.
Maryland regulators took a similar approach last year in a case charging that Perdue Farms violated its pollution discharge permit at a facility in Worcester County. As part of the settlement, Perdue agreed to upgrade a wastewater treatment facility and preserve 50 acres of wetlands.
"Our focus in an enforcement effort is to right the wrong that was done," said Browner. "In this case, where you had a history of practices that caused polluted runoff into the waters of the region, our goal was to reduce the overall pollution."
U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said the penalties are the toughest in Maryland's history and send a message to the poultry industry that polluters will have to bear heavy costs. She said Tyson is responsible for the payments even though it took control of Hudson only in January.
Company spokesman Archie Schaffer said Tyson knew about the violations and the pending settlement when it acquired Hudson. He said Tyson is "pleased to have this matter resolved, or will be after the court approves it."
A federal judge must approve the settlement after a public comment period before it can go into effect.
Effects of pollution
The effect of the plant's pollution is difficult to determine. Federal officials said yesterday that there were no dramatic signs of damage, such as fish kills or injured wildlife. The pollutants are unrelated to the Pfiesteria outbreaks on the Chesapeake Bay last summer.
But the type of nutrient loading found in Kitts Branch can cause oxygen depletion in the water and cause fish population to decrease due to less fish spawning, scientists say.
Poultry processing plants and other animal-raising and meat-processing operations are one of the nation's biggest sources of water pollution, responsible for damaging at least one in 10 American streams. The EPA is now trying to tighten regulation of feedlots and is meeting with poultry companies in hopes of reaching agreement on new anti-pollution standards for the industry.
Lois J. Schiffer, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's environmental section, said agricultural runoff poses serious risks for Maryland waterways.
"This action shows that it's more expensive not to comply with the law than to comply with it," she said.
Rival chicken producers are unlikely to take much comfort from their rival's predicament.
Carol Amend, the EPA's regional associate director for enforcement, said that since November the agency has been conducting inspections of poultry processing sites throughout the Chesapeake region and is analyzing the results now.
She said that while each case is different, any possible future settlements would likely be "consistent" with the Tyson agreement.
Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland environment department, said the problems at the Hudson plant go back at least as far as 1991, when company officials first entered into an agreement with state regulators to curb pollution there.
He said that agreement was amended in 1994 after the company failed to curb discharges of effluent contaminated with ammonia and fecal coliform bacteria into the Kitts Branch waterway, which runs into the Chincoteague Bay near Assateague Island. Chincoteague, a shallow coastal bay that is not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is regarded as especially vulnerable to pollution.
Banks said state officials finally brought the company's problems to the attention of the EPA. The federal agency, he said, carries "a bigger stick" than the state agency.
Brian Maas, director of EPA's water enforcement division, said federal regulators also tried without success to get Hudson to correct the problems.
"Hudson Foods did not respond over several years to our administrative orders," Maas said.
Law vs. settlement
A court settlement requires Tyson Foods Inc. to assure that the company's 240 poultry farms in Delmarva, most of them in Maryland, implement pollution control plans much faster than required under Maryland's new anti-Pfiesteria law, which affects nearly 13,000 farms in the state. The settlement also imposes other requirements not addressed under Maryland's law.
Maryland law: Requires chicken companies to add phytase, or another enzyme that reduces the phosphorus content of manure, to feed by Dec. 31, 2000.
Settlement: Requires Tyson to add phytase to feed produced at FTC its Eastern Shore mill within six months of the judge's approval of the settlement and to ensure that 8 million chickens receive phytase during all or part of their life cycle.
Maryland bill: Farms using manure as fertilizer must have a runoff control plan for nitrogen by Dec. 31, 2001, and comply with it a year later. They must adopt a phosphorus plan by July 2004 and comply with it a year later. State will provide financial assistance.
Settlement: Tyson must spend $300,000 to help its Delmarva poultry growers prepare runoff control plans within two years. All of Tyson's 240 growers in Delmarva are expected to have such plans within two years. New growers must have them within three years. EPA expects the plans to address phosphorus as well as nitrogen.
Manure storage sheds
Maryland bill: Authorizes state to provide matching funds to help pay for them as well as providing a tax credit to farmers.
Settlement: Requires Tyson within one year to build and use waterproof storage sheds at six company-owned farms at an estimated cost of $250,000.
Maryland bill: Not addressed.
Settlement: Tyson must install equipment to reduce nitrates in the discharge at the Hudson plant in Berlin by 15 percent. Tyson must reduce nitrogen pollution at two plants in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania by 30 percent.
Maryland bill: Not addressed.
Settlement: Tyson must spend an estimated $550,000 to apply alum -- which makes phosphorus less soluble -- to manure at 100 Hudson broiler houses.
Pub Date: 5/09/98