The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has asked that state officials enforce environmental laws against Tyson Foods Inc. after the environmental group's recent discoveries that the nation's largest poultry producer has been dumping thousands of gallons of chicken waste daily on an Eastern Shore field.
In a letter sent to Maryland Department of Environment officials Friday, the foundation urged MDE to take immediate action against the poultry giant for disposing of chicken remains on its 105-acre farm field near Berlin.
This controversy comes months after the Arkansas-based Tyson was penalized for polluting tributaries of Chincoteague Bay. The company was forced to pay $4 million in fines and $2 million for anti-pollution equipment and programs -- the most severe penalty for a water pollution case in Maryland.
"Apparently they're still thumbing their nose at clean-water regulations," said William C. Baker, president of the foundation. "We have seen absolutely no willingness to cooperate on their part unless they are under threat of penalty.
"When we found out that the state knew this practice had gone on for several weeks, we wanted to know why weren't they fining Tyson or taking any action," Baker added. The letter was first reported in the Washington Post yesterday.
MDE officials said yesterday that the investigation of Tyson is continuing and that they will meet with Tyson officials July 2 to discuss a farm management plan that the company was asked to submit. The plan outlines procedures that Tyson will use to control waste material from its plants.
Efforts yesterday to reach a Tyson spokesman at corporate headquarters in Springdale, Ark., were unsuccessful.
MDE officials said yesterday they became aware of the violations after visiting Tyson plants on April 7 to make observations and review documents.
"Based on that visit and the documents, we believe their practice of applying sludge to the fields constituted a threat to ground surface waters and that they were in violation of state laws," said Quentin W. Banks, MDE spokesman. "We sent them a letter back on April 30 advising them of that.
"The matter is still under investigation, so while enforcement action has been contemplated, a decision on what kind of action has not been made yet," Banks said. The sludge consists of feathers, entrails and waste from the slaughtering process.
If found guilty, Tyson could be fined a maximum penalty of $10,000 per day for every violation that can be proved in court. MDE officials said they are unsure how long Tyson has been applying the sludge to its fields near Berlin.
Foundation officials say the problem is urgent because the sludge has high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, two primary nutrients that are a major source of water quality problems. The nutrients can help fuel algae blooms, which reduce oxygen levels and damage vital bay grasses. The microbe Pfiesteria piscicida, found in Maryland waters last year, can become toxic when such nutrients seep into bay waters, Baker said.
At the Berlin plant, Tyson was spreading the sludge on fields that have no crops. When it rains, the fields drain into nearby creeks that flow into Chincoteague Bay, where the region's most lush sea-grass meadows shelter abundant clams and fish.
"They might as well save themselves the trouble and just dump it into the river," Baker said. "It's irresponsible. We have consistently asked poultry companies to meet us halfway in order to solve these problems of excess polluting nutrients worldwide.
"Our request to Tyson and other companies have been met with claims that they are not a part of the problem," Baker said. "It's a head-in-the-sand mentality instead of 'let's work together' to solve the problem."
Pub Date: 6/21/98