Report: More than half of Maryland poultry farm inspections raised water pollution concerns, but just a few operators paid fines

When Maryland environmental regulators inspected state poultry farms in recent years, they uncovered water pollution concerns in the majority of cases. But only a handful of those operations ended up paying fines, an investigation by an environmental watchdog group has found.

The Environmental Integrity Project examined inspection records from June 2017 through November 2020, covering 182 of the about 500 poultry operations across the Eastern Shore, and found that more than half the time, state regulators found improper handling of animal waste. Chicken litter that washes into waterways is a major pollutant fouling the Chesapeake Bay.


In a report released Thursday, the group is raising concern that, despite how prevalent those issues are, the Maryland Department of the Environment rarely ends up collecting fines from the poultry farms it regulates. The department says it relies on a “compliance assistance” approach that involves helping farms and other environmental permit holders fix problems before penalizing them.

The report follows other critical reviews of Maryland’s environmental oversight under Gov. Larry Hogan, with a yearslong trend of declining enforcement actions taken against polluters.


“If we are ever going to meet our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, Maryland is going to have to get serious about its oversight of the poultry industry, start penalizing chronic waste violations and holding the big poultry companies accountable,” Eric Schaeffer, the project’s executive director and a former Environmental Protection Agency official, said in a statement.

Decades of Chesapeake cleanup efforts have targeted a 2025 deadline to restore the estuary, but as that date approaches, waterways remain significantly impaired.

State environmental officials said Wednesday they had not yet seen the report and could not comment on its specific findings. But they said in general, “a high percentage of violations that are found are associated with record-keeping requirements, as opposed to water quality issues.” The state Department of the Environment is responsible for enforcing what are known as general discharge permits, which set limits on pollution contained in stormwater runoff or other large releases into waterways.

“Where we do find environmental concerns we focus on returning facilities to compliance with regulations, but we will go after polluters and impose financial penalties when needed,” department officials said in a statement.

A poultry industry group suggested the report aims to “cripple the business models of family-owned chicken farms in the name of activism,” and noted that the farms have steadily reduced the amount of nutrients washing into the bay over the past 25 years.

“There’s still work to be done by farmers and everyone else who lives in the Bay’s watershed, but reports like this one are simply attempts to distract from the real, tangible progress farmers have made in protecting water quality,” Delmarva Chicken Association spokesman James Fisher said in a statement.

The report found that, indeed, about 95% of the poultry operations that failed inspections had problems with record-keeping, including failure to file annual reports with the state or to keep records properly. State environmental officials have said they rely on self-reported data from farms or industrial sites to keep tabs on potential sources of pollution, because there aren’t enough inspectors to proactively audit for proper environmental protection.

But issues often went beyond paperwork. The report found that two-thirds of the failed inspections also involved waste management problems, including inadequate waste storage and storage of manure uncovered, piled onto paved surfaces.


Of the poultry farms that failed an initial inspection, 43% failed a follow up inspection, the report found.

And the state imposed $20,500 in fines on eight of the 78 poultry farms with repeat violations, going on to actually collect $8,250 in penalties from four of them, the report said. In some cases, fines were issued but later revoked after proper paperwork was filed, or when the state found that a poultry operation had been sold or closed.

The enforcement activity appeared to focus most heavily on newer poultry operations, but otherwise was spread evenly across the industry, said Courtney Bernhardt, the Environmental Integrity Project’s research director. Most farmers hold contracts to sell chickens to one of three large poultry companies — Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire — and the inspection records, which the group obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act, show similar scrutiny on farms aligned with each of the companies.

While the documents reflect conditions at just over one third of Maryland poultry operations, report authors said they believe their findings to be representative of the industry at large.

Kathy Phillips, executive director of Assateague Coastal Trust, said she frequently sees manure covering pavement outside of the large chicken houses she passes driving around the Eastern Shore — until a decent rain washes it away. While farmers may argue small amounts of manure left on the pavement may be insignificant, “it is a problem,” she said.

The Delmarva chicken industry group emphasized a portion of the report that suggests farmers have actually had success reducing the amount of chicken waste reaching the bay — a finding that the number of sites regulators consider to have “significant violations” has declined. The report went on to suggest those cases may now be undercounted.


Environmental groups have for years raised concern about declining environmental enforcement activity by the state, even as Chesapeake Bay cleanup remains a high priority, and a stubborn problem.

According to data gathered by the Center for Progressive Reform, the 22 enforcement actions the state took to correct water pollution violations in fiscal year 2020 were the fewest in at least 20 years. The state inspected about 2,300 sites for water pollution in both fiscal years 2020 and 2019, down from more than 5,000 as recently as 2012.

Another group focused on water pollution, Blue Water Baltimore, recently raised concern that state and Baltimore environmental regulators failed to stop water pollution from the city’s two wastewater treatment plants that went on for a year. Environmentalists worry that without aggressive enforcement, including penalties, there is little deterrent for farms, wastewater plants and large industrial facilities to limit pollution.

Those concerns also apply to the use of chicken waste as fertilizer on fields, an issue the report also raised.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture said it has fined 72 farms $250 each for failing to submit annual reports on their use of chicken litter on fields over the past five years, but the report authors raised concern that may not be enough. State water quality data suggests levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that feeds algae blooms and fouls waters, have not improved over the past two decades, the report found.

“There are no repercussions” for farmers who overapply chicken waste to their fields, said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Why would they stop?”


Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said his department faces “continual challenges and emerging concerns that require multiple tools, including enforcement.”

“We have always recognized the critical role of inspections, compliance, enforcement, and penalties,” he said in a statement. “Numbers change from year to year but we continue to take aggressive enforcement actions and seek stiff penalties to hold polluters accountable and prevent future pollution.”