The Maryland Department of the Environment has challenged an administrative law judge's ruling last month that the department lacks the legal authority to hold poultry-processing companies responsible for getting rid of excess waste generated by their contract chicken growers.
MDE, through Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., registered a number of exceptions to Judge Neile S. Friedman's decision in the so-called "co-permitting" processing.
In a 27-page filing disclosed yesterday, Curran said each of Friedman's "conclusions of law, and the factual finding underlying them, is incorrect."
The judge's Aug. 23 ruling was technically a recommendation to the secretary of MDE.
Richard McIntire, a spokesman for MDE, said yesterday that the next step is for the MDE secretary to appoint an "impartial decision maker" to review Friedman's decision and Curran's exceptions and make a final decision.
After that, either side can appeal to the Circuit Court.
Through modifications of the poultry companies' wastewater discharge permits, the department was attempting to make chicken processors responsible for helping growers dispose of litter - a mixture of sawdust and manure - from their farms.
The attempt was challenged by all three of the chicken processing companies with plants in Maryland - Perdue Farms Inc., Allen Family Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc.
In his filing, Curran said that "MDE is charged with managing, improving, controlling, and conserving the waters of Maryland." He argued that the department's statute allows it to include farm operations in the processing plant's wastewater discharge permit.
He concluded that passage of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, which is administered by the state Department of Agriculture, did not reduce MDE's authority in controlling water pollution.
Curran said that the existing discharge permit with at least one poultry processor allows for it to be modified or revoked and reissued if there is a determination that "the permitted discharge poses a threat to human health or welfare or to the environment."
Chicken farmers use some of the litter as fertilizer in growing corn and soybeans or chicken meal.
The runoff from fields in which chicken manure is used was suspected of contributing to the outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997 that forced the closing of parts of three rivers and dealt a serious setback to the state's tourism and seafood industries.
Farm organizations were disappointed by the state's challenge to Friedman's decision. Valerie Connelly, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the bureau will continue to fight MDE's move. She called it "overkill," noting that the state has nutrient management laws to control farm runoff.
William Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group representing the region's poultry industry, said "it was incredible that the state continues to try to push this clear illegal scheme."
Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said MDE's action could put Maryland's poultry industry at a competitive disadvantage with processors in other parts of the country.
Poultry is a $612.8 million business in Maryland, and it is estimated that half of Delmarva's 14,000 processing plant workers and 2,500 farm families raising birds for these plants are from Maryland.
It accounts for about one-third of Maryland's total farm sales.