Eastern Shore poultry pollution trial opens

Lawyers in a closely watched pollution lawsuit targeting an Eastern Shore chicken farm and the Salisbury-based poultry company Perdue presented radically different previews of the case Tuesday as the trial began in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The lead lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance told Judge William M. Nickerson that water samples taken on and around Alan and Kristin Hudson's 293-acre farm near Berlin offer "very compelling" evidence that waste from their two chicken houses was getting into nearby ditches, which ultimately drain to the Chesapeake Bay. Levels of disease-causing bacteria and other pollutants were "off the chart," said Jane F. Barrett, director of the University of Maryland environmental law clinic, which is representing the environmental group.

But lawyers for the Hudsons and for Perdue, which owns the birds the Hudsons are raising, dismissed the Waterkeeper group's case as "conjecture and speculation," put together to fit the alliance's pre-existing public campaign to portray the poultry industry as a major source of bay pollution.

"The plaintiff wants to get Perdue, and Alan and his wife are collateral damage," said Michael Schatzow, one of Perdue's lawyers.

Supporters of both sides in the legal dispute filled the benches in the courtroom as the lawyers delivered their opening arguments and sparred over testimony of witnesses they expected to call in the coming days of the trial, which could take up to three weeks. The only person to testify was Drew Koslow, the Choptank Riverkeeper, who recounted how he had assisted representatives of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance in sampling the ditches around the Hudsons' farm.

Before the trial began, a small group of sign-toting environmental and social activists gathered outside the courthouse to voice their belief that Perdue and other poultry companies are harming the environment while also taking advantage of contract growers like the Hudsons.

"We're hoping the trial is going to show, once and for all, that the waste is Perdue's responsibility," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group that is not a party to the suit.

A key issue in the trial is whether Perdue should be held liable if the judge finds chicken waste from the Hudsons' farm did contaminate the ditches that drain the surrounding land. The environmental group contends Perdue effectively controls the way growers raise its birds, including monitoring their environmental safeguards, and Nickerson refused Perdue's pre-trial motion to be excused from the lawsuit.

But Schatzow said he found it "ironic" that Perdue is being sued, calling it an industry leader in taking steps to improve the environment. The company built a plant to convert chicken manure into dry fertilizer pellets and entered into a voluntary agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to train its contract growers on how to prevent pollution from their farms.

George F. Ritchie, the Hudsons' lawyer, said his clients have been living a "nightmare" since the Waterkeeper Alliance first publicly alleged that pollution was running off their farm nearly three years ago. After spotting a pile of brownish material on the farm in an aerial overflight, the group erroneously identified it as chicken manure, he said, and should have dropped the case after state inspectors confirmed Perdue's public statements that the pile was treated sewage sludge. Now, he said, the Hudsons fear they'll be driven into bankruptcy by the case and lose a farm that has been in the family for more than a century.

Ritchie pointed out that state inspectors who scrutinized the farm after the Waterkeeper group went public took no action against the Hudsons over their handling of the waste from their two chicken houses, which hold 80,000 birds at a time. The couple was only cited for improper storage of the sludge.

Perdue's lawyer also argued that the contamination found in the ditches came from the 66 cows the Hudsons raise. Federal law does not regulate runoff from pastures, he said, so there's no case against either the Hudsons or Perdue.

Barrett countered that the sludge pile was merely the "trigger" for the group to take a closer look and find problems with the regulated portion of the Hudsons' farm, its chicken houses. While some of the bacteria and nutrient pollution found in the ditches may have come from the cows, she argued that sampling revealed much higher contamination near the chicken houses, indicating they are the source of at least some of the pollution. She also noted that the Pocomoke River, roughly 3.5 miles downstream from the farm, is officially classified as impaired by nutrient pollution such as was found in the ditch.