Pfiesteria fight may not be over Big poultry firms must be held accountable for Chesapeake's health


Last summer's Pfiesteria outbreaks made the Chesapeake Bay perhaps the most prominent battleground for what has become a national environmental problem - polluted runoff from large livestock operations. Whether or not these outbreaks reappear this summer, they stand as a visible symptom of the bay's chronic ailment from excess nutrients. And Maryland's recently passed nutrient-management legislation will not do enough in the short term to address this problem.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has demonstrated admirable leadership on this issue since last summer's Pfiesteria outbreaks. Unfortunately, the version of his bill that was signed into law last week was substantially weakened in the legislature. The new nutrient-management law does little to hold the big poultry companies accountable for the pollution they cause and allows a nearly eight-year time period in which phosphorus-laden manure will continue to be spread on the phosphorus-saturated fields of the lower Eastern Shore and elsewhere in the state.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many other environmental groups believe that the large national poultry companies and not just small farmer-growers, must be the focus of nutrient cleanup efforts.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seem to agree, given events that transpired in recent weeks. In a joint action, these two federal agencies levied $6 million in fines and remedies against Tyson Foods Inc. FTC for violating the Clean Water Act in Maryland. A few days earlier, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told a Capitol Hill summit on animal waste that the United States is committed to national regulations that will ensure that large livestock companies cannot migrate to states with loose environmental laws.

This may suggest that the chickens are coming home to roost for the large national poultry companies, which include Tyson and Purdue. The companies produce more than 600 million birds annually on the Delmarva Peninsula. These chickens generate 800,000 tons of chicken manure each year, or enough to pave the four-lane highway from Annapolis to Ocean City with a three-foot deep layer. Half of the Delmarva manure falls in Maryland; it contains twice as much phosphorus as does the waste of the state's human population.

The state and federal governments have spent billions to treat human waste, but the nitrogen and phosphorus waste generated by poultry companies washes off the Eastern Shore untreated and unregulated. The EPA requires that every other major polluting industry in the state and country manage its waste, but the national poultry companies have not been required to manage the manure waste their growing operations generate. Now that the state and federal governments have taken at least the first steps to address agricultural runoff and the wastes generated by the national poultry companies on the Eastern Shore, citizens must continue to demand that these efforts spread to other nutrient "hot spots" throughout the huge Chesapeake Bay watershed.

At stake is our health, the health of the critical industries that rely on a clean and safe Chesapeake Bay and the health of the chicken industry. As environmental cleanups in other industries have shown, it's possible to have a healthy environment and a healthy bottom line - for the whole community.

Thomas V. Grasso is the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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