Several environmental groups called Tuesday for a moratorium on new poultry houses on the Eastern Shore, warning that the industry's expansion will worsen the region's pollution problem before new regulations designed to address it can take effect.
The Environmental Integrity Project, in a new report, said that at least 200 poultry houses have been permitted or sought approval recently on the Delmarva Peninsula. Somerset County approved construction of around 70 houses alone, it said, while neighboring Accomack County, VA has received applications for 84 new houses and Delaware's Sussex County has added 50 since 2014.
The Washington-based group and its allies urged that the industry's expansion in Maryland at least be halted until 2024, when state regulations are set to take full effect that are intended to curb over-application of phosphorus-rich animal waste as fertilizer. Phosphorus from farms is a significant source of algae blooms and poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
The groups also appealed for Maryland to restore water-quality monitoring stations on Shore rivers surrounded by poultry growing operations. State officials shut down nine of 16 monitors on lower Shore rivers two years ago, blaming loss of federal funds, the report says.
Eric Schaeffer, the project's executive director, called it "penny-wise and pound foolish" to cut back on monitoring as the industry expands. He contended the lost monitors could help assess the effectiveness of the new phosphorus management regulations, which began to be phased in in June.
Analyzing data farmers reported to the state, the EIP report contends that nearly 80 percent of the phosphorus in poultry manure that was spread on croplands in 2013 went on soil that already had too much of the plant nutrient. Ninety-three poultry operations reported spreading nearly 800,000 pounds of phosphorus on 18,000 acres, the group said.
"New chicken houses should not be allowed until strict regulations are in place requiring new operations to dispose of their chicken waste in a way that does not add an phosphorus pollution to the Chesapeake Bay or her tributaries," said Timothy D. Junkin, director of the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which usually promotes working with farmers to reduce pollution, issued a statement after the report's release calling the growth of the poultry industry "a problem the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must address."
Alison Prost, the group's Maryland director, said a moratorium "may be imperative if the state doesn't account for and address pollution comilng from these new houses."
Erin Montgomery, spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said that though budget cuts forced the elimination of some river monitoring stations, there are still enough in place to keep tabs on water quality.
Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, noted that the new phosphorus regulations have effectively banned use of manure on soils with the highest levels of that nutrient. The limits set by that rule as well as the "nutrient management" regulation will apply to old and new chicken houses alike, she added, "providing safeguards for water quality."
Valerie T. Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, called it "ridiculous" to ask for a moratorium on farms without also targeting other sources of pollution. She contended that farmers already have reduced phosphorus use over the past decade, and before the adoption of the new state regulations.
"I think everyone can rest assured that farm nutrients are appropriately managed under our mandated nutrient management programs in Maryland," she said, adding that new and existing farms alike must adhere to limits on fertilizer use.
Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., said the construction surge comes after years of retrenchment. The peninsula's poultry industry is simply "catching up" after being held down by economic sluggishness and regulatory hurdles, he said.
Satterfield added that new chicken houses "include the latest technology and have landscape designs and environmental protection systems that exceed existing chicken housing."