A group of state lawmakers wants to require big poultry companies to be responsible for the manure from their chickens that are raised on family farms — forcing a change in practice that the industry has opposed.
The Poultry Litter Requirement Act has the backing of top Democrats in the General Assembly but is likely to face stiff opposition from the poultry industry, which has a major foothold on the Eastern Shore and a powerful voice in Annapolis.
"Those individuals who are making the mess need to clean up the mess," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Most large chicken companies provide food and medication for the birds they own, but the chickens are raised at contracted farms. Once the contract growers return the birds to the chicken companies, they are left with poultry litter — a combination of manure and bedding material that they can use as fertilizer or sell.
Environmentalists say the industry's practices place an unfair burden on farmers to deal with the pollution.
In a long-running, high-profile case, the Waterkeeper Alliance sued both a contract farmer and Salisbury-based Perdue Farms over alleged pollution coming from an Eastern Shore farm in an attempt to prove Purdue was just as liable for the pollution as the contract farmers. The Waterkeeper Alliance lost the case in 2012.
Environmentalists also say the health of the Chesapeake Bay is at risk because Eastern Shore chicken farms produce more manure than is needed to fertilize croplands. Agriculture, including chicken farming, is the single largest source of pollution to the bay, alongside sewage, septic systems, stormwater runoff and air pollution.
The bill would establish that poultry companies are responsible for the manure from their birds and require them to remove excess manure from their contracted farms. There also are documentation requirements in the bill.
Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung declined to comment on the legislation because she hadn't yet reviewed it. But she defended her company's practices.
If Perdue's contract farmers don't have an outlet for their litter, the company will pick it up and take it to a facility in Delaware that turns it into pelletized fertilizer, DeYoung said. Perdue also is building a manure composting facility and is looking into options for turning manure into energy, she said.
"Those who claim that Perdue is putting the responsibility for poultry litter on our farmers are choosing to ignore this fact," DeYoung said.
Officials with the trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry declined to comment because they hadn't reviewed the bill.