SALISBURY -- Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler called yesterday for higher fines for agricultural polluters and a manure-burning plant to transform chicken litter into electricity.
"I would like to take 500,000 pounds of chicken manure a year and turn it into power," said Gansler, a Democrat. "That would really help make a huge, herculean and dramatic improvement to the watershed."
Gansler spoke to about 200 people at the Eastern Shore Poultry Summit at the Wicomico Civic Center, a meeting of environmentalists and farmers organized by the Waterkeepers Alliance, an environmental group.
Tempers flared between activists and poultry growers at the daylong event, which sought to find solutions for a major source of runoff pollution that causes algae blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Sun reported on Oct. 4 that the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore produces about a billion pounds of manure a year, but Maryland has been slower than Pennsylvania and at least 11 other states in requiring factory-style pollution-control permits for large poultry feeding businesses.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the Waterkeepers Alliance, said that Maryland should start holding large poultry companies such as Perdue Farms responsible for the manure produced by the farmers who have contracts to raise Perdue's chickens.
"You have to shift the burdens to the guy who is really at fault, which are the powerful people, the Tysons, the Perdues ... who have engineered the system to make themselves rich by making everybody else in the state poor," Kennedy said.
Kennedy, son of the late senator and presidential candidate, accused Perdue Farms, which is based in Salisbury, of stealing the Chesapeake Bay from the public by polluting it, and having "indentured servants" in the Maryland state government who allow them to foul the waters to make a profit.
"Perdue ... has privatized the fish and waterways of the Chesapeake Bay. It has stolen them from the public," Kennedy said. "And that is not an act of democracy. That is a milestone of tyranny, and we have to recognize that."
Julie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Perdue farms, said Kennedy doesn't understand the poultry industry.
"I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was resorting to hyperbole," said DeYoung. "His comments are patently ridiculous. Perdue has a strong environmental record."
Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade organization, gave a PowerPoint presentation with statistics showing that farms produce less runoff pollution than development. Satterfield said that farmers have been doing better in reducing fertilizer pollution, but that these gains have been overwhelmed by a growing human population, especially in suburban areas.
"The poultry industry on the Delmarva Peninsula is leading and doing its part to reduce ... pollution in the bay," Satterfield said. "The chicken industry is not public enemy No. 1 in the effort to restore the bay."
Gansler said Maryland should start requiring the factory-style permits for large poultry operations. Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has said it will draft these water-pollution-control permits - which require state inspections and a list of waste-management rules - by the end of the year. Many farmers object, calling the permits excessive regulation for family farmers.
And Gansler said state lawmakers should change a 2004 law that requires the state's power companies to buy about 10 percent of their electricity from alternative sources to include poultry litter as an alternative, along with solar and wind power.
Gansler said including poultry manure in that quota would provide a financial incentive for a private company to spend millions building a waste-to-energy plant that would take half of the state's chicken litter. A similar plant burns turkey litter to create electricity in Minnesota.
Gansler is also urging the legislature to introduce a bill that would raise fines to at least "four figures" from the maximum of $350 today for farmers who do not have nutrient management plans, which aim to minimize the application of fertilizer.
In addition, Gansler endorsed the position of the Waterkeepers Alliance, which argues that Maryland should stop making nutrient management plans secret, so that the public and environmental groups can't review them.
Roger L. Richardson, the state's secretary of agriculture, said his agency will seek higher fines for violators. But he questioned whether there would be enough extra manure to fuel an electricity plant, and said his agency would oppose opening up the state records on the numbers of animals and how manure is handled on farms.
"Would you want the public to see your income tax forms?" Richardson said. "The farmers are very conservative people." .