An Unsavory Byproduct: Runoff and Pollution
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 1999; Page A1
First of three articles
The highways running east from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the beaches of the Atlantic offer mere glimpses of the Eastern Shore's vast poultry enterprise. Grain silos tower above long, low chicken houses. Tractor trailers rush by, hauling live birds to slaughterhouses.
From the air, the industry's true scale emerges: A massive operation, global in reach, it dominates the landscape. Chicken houses fill the horizons, nearly 6,000 in all, raising more than 600 million birds a year and turning out more than 750,000 tons of manure. Tractors rake it into soils as fertilizer, the winds carrying the smell of ammonia.
The impact of all that waste – more than produced by a city of 4 million people – is subtle but potent, as it washes off fields and seeps into groundwater. Decades of relentless growth have propelled the poultry industry into the primary source of pollution reaching key portions of the Chesapeake and coastal bays of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.
Reclamation efforts have improved the majority of mid-Atlantic waterways since 1980, but most rivers flowing through Delmarva chicken country have worsened, according to The Washington Post's analysis of more than 277,000 water quality monitoring records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Levels of dissolved oxygen – a key gauge of water quality – have fallen throughout the Delmarva peninsula while increasing in most other mid-Atlantic waterways.
Environmental regulators are now racing to catch up with a chicken business that has outpaced them. But their efforts come up against a legacy of lenience toward the primary economic engine for Delmarva, the local shorthand for the peninsula of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
During the last five years, several substantial pollution spills in Virginia and Delaware went unsanctioned, just as hundreds of smaller and recurring water violations at plants across the peninsula have gone without penalty, The Post found.
Companies have also taken advantage of loopholes in regulations. Perdue, the country's second-largest chicken producer, trucks millions of gallons of waste a year from its Delaware slaughterhouses into Maryland, where the loads are injected into fields. Delaware limits such dumping, but Maryland does not.
For years, poultry waste has been spread as fertilizer for crops. But as Delmarva's once-backyard chicken shacks have morphed into factory farms, the sheer volume of waste has overwhelmed the ability of crops to absorb it. More than 600 million chickens are raised on less ground than produced 380 million two decades ago, concentrating more pollutants than ever on shrinking farmland.
Estimates from the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program office identify poultry manure as the largest source of excess nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Chesapeake from the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. Those two nutrients are basic parts of the food chain, but they overstimulate algae growth when too much reaches water. When algae dies, its decomposition consumes oxygen, choking fish and other water life.
Some scientists believe the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida – which bloomed two years ago on the Pocomoke River, prompting its closure as a health hazard – also feeds on excess nutrients and algae. The Pocomoke drains much of Maryland's lower Eastern Shore and southern Delaware, emptying into the Chesapeake. For more than two decades, limiting nutrient pollution has been a central focus of efforts to protect the bay.
Thousands of pages of academic and government studies detail the environmental impacts of growing millions of chickens in confined areas.
Throughout chicken country, as many as one-third of all wells exceed EPA safe drinking water standards for nitrate, a form of nitrogen concentrated in chicken waste that seeps into groundwater, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
USGS has also found trace amounts of arsenic in the Pocomoke, the likely residue of the arsenic added to chicken feed to kill harmful parasites and promote growth.
James A. Perdue, president of the company that bears the family name, acknowledges that feeding and slaughtering millions of birds yields millions of tons of manure and nutrients. But he rejects as unfounded suggestions that Delmarva's rivers and bays are worse off as a result.
"What about all the septic tanks, and people fertilizing their lawns, and municipal sewage plants?" he said. "How come nobody's looking at them? There's a lot of hysteria."
EPA data provides a different perspective: Poultry on the lower shore sends more than four times as much nitrogen into the bay as the biggest nonagricultural source – leaky septic tanks and runoff from developed areas – and more than three times as much phosphorus as the second-largest nonfarm source, sewage treatment plants. And that's before factoring in other ways chicken waste reaches water – through slaughterhouses discharging treated waste water and burying sludge, a mud-like leftover scraped from treatment plants.
Every working day, a dozen slaughterhouses slice the necks of more than 2 million birds, using more than 12 million gallons of water to flush away more than 1,600 tons of guts, chicken heads, fat globules, feathers and blood. The slaughterhouses treat the water before they release it to creeks, but it still contains some pollution.
"In the lower shore, poultry is the primary source of excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus," said Bill Matuszeski, director of the Bay Program office. "Nothing else is even close."
The EPA is extending the strictures of the federal Clean Water Act to agriculture. Maryland has led the nation with rules to limit farm pollution. Virginia followed with a runoff law this year. Even Delaware, where the industry enjoys powerful allies, responded to EPA pressure and this year adopted new farming rules.
Key provisions of those laws take effect between 2001 and 2007. Meanwhile, poultry corporations with Delmarva plants have hired lobbyists to fend off additional curbs. Maryland producers formed a political action committee this year to support candidates sympathetic to the industry. A tri-state trade group kicked off a public relations campaign last month to counter the image of chicken companies as polluters.
"Much of the work that we have done in 1998, and will do in 1999, involves protecting you from government intrusion," declared Kenneth M. Bounds, president of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., during an April banquet for farmers, bankers, grain salespeople and others in the chicken business. "Our industry is under attack, and everyone must rally to its defense. Our critics are armed with fear and misinformation. We must overcome them."
That resolve and anger resonate with many growers.
"I'm not running a stone pit. I'm not running a whorehouse. I'm running a farming operation," said Bob Winkler, who raises 168,000 chickens at a time for Townsends Inc. inside six 500-foot-long houses in Felton, Del. "We're doing a hell of a service for humanity: feeding them. If you shut down this chicken industry, where are the people going to get their food?"
Industry leaders complain they are caught between the nation's hunger for cheap chicken, which depends on huge economies of scale, and an increasingly fervent call for pristine waterways. Their hatcheries, feed mills and slaughterhouses generate a reliable supply of affordable meat. They also produce vast waste.
"The good Lord only gave us three ways to deal with our problem," said Perdue's manager for environmental services, John K. Chlada, in a speech before the Maryland Coastal Bays Program Citizen Advisory Committee. "We can put it out in the air, put it out in the water or put it out on the land. Where do you want me to put it?"
Sprawl in Chicken Country
For decades, chicken houses have sprouted in ever thicker clusters across the peninsula's fields, as farmers have cashed in on their proximity to the urban markets of the Northeast.
Near the town of Rehobeth, Md., on the lower Pocomoke River, chicken houses outnumber all other structures, stretching like freight trains across the land. East of Pocomoke City, a tractor spreads manure across empty ground stretching toward the glimmering Chincoteague Bay. Even from 1,000 feet in the sky, the waste reeks.
In southern Delaware – the most prodigious poultry turf in the country – chicken houses necklace the Nanticoke River, sending more pollution toward the Chesapeake.
For construction crews that erect the houses, the bankers who finance them, grain farmers, truck drivers and plant workers, the poultry boom amounts to a steady livelihood.
"It's what's keeping everything going around here," said Larry Mitchell, 74, who grows 15,000 birds at a time for Townsends in a weathered house in Dagsboro, Del.
A University of Maryland study estimated that a mere 4 percent drop in the state's poultry production would wipe out 1,000 jobs and $74 million in economic output. Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group, estimates chicken growers and company employees took home more than $510 million in 1998.
But the same market forces have created a rising tide of pollution. It takes six to eight weeks for a chick to move from shell to shelf. Every step produces waste containing abundant nitrogen and phosphorus.
Rail cars from the Midwest carry corn to feed more chickens. The rail cars return, but the nutrients stay behind, deposited on fields as manure and discharged by slaughterhouses. Recent studies have found that many areas of Delmarva possess two to three times more manure than needed to fertilize local crops.
Sussex County, Del., home to more than one-third of Delmarva's chickens, has only enough cropland to digest manure generated by about 64 million birds a year, according to a study released last fall by a University of Delaware team of researchers. The county produced more than 232 million birds last year.
Lands drained by Indian River Bay and Little Assawoman Bay – harder hit by nutrient pollution than the Chesapeake – have enormous surpluses of chicken manure, the University of Delaware study found.
For poultry companies, there is a "huge economic advantage" to concentrating so many birds so close to slaughterhouses, said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacy group. "On the mid- and lower-Shore tributaries, as the poultry industry has grown, water pollution has grown worse."
State environmental agencies and the EPA have collected water quality data from a handful of stations around the Chesapeake since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the agencies established 100 data collection points across the Chesapeake in a multistate effort to reclaim the bay. When pfiesteria was found, monitoring efforts were further intensified.
Natural events dramatically affect the data for any given time or place. Big storms send pulses of pollution through rivers. A rainy winter can increase pollution for the whole year. A drought can have the opposite effect. Moreover, individual collection stations can vary widely, depending on local factors such as tide, salinity and depth. But two decades' worth of data reveals a significant trend: Nutrients are besieging the water.
The chicken industry's expansion is not the sole pressure on the land. Urban refugees are descending from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, their ranch houses rubbing up against farms. As bull dozers turn farmland into subdivisions, the acreage available to absorb chicken manure as fertilizer is shrinking.
From 1982 to 1997, Delmarva's poultry production grew by roughly one-third, but the peninsula's total cropland shrunk by about 15 percent, according to a Post analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Much of the industry's growth is occurring in areas that have historically nurtured few chickens. Poultry is expanding north and south into Maryland's upper Eastern Shore and Virginia's Accomack County – where production has more than doubled since 1982 – spreading its environmental harm.
"Make no mistake: The big poultry companies have the opportunity to be environmental heroes," Baker said. "If they work together, they could reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay more than any other source."
A 1997 Maryland Environment Department survey of the St. Martin's River, the largest tributary to the state's coastal bays, found "many large piles" of chicken litter, "ranging into the hundreds of tons," near ditches and creeks that feed the main stem.
As Robert M. Summers, a water quality expert with the Maryland Department of the Environment, visited a dozen lower Eastern Shore monitoring stations in January, he encountered high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus at nearly every one – the typical find.
The team stopped at the headwaters of Kings Creek, outside the town of Princess Anne, less than a mile above the bend where pfiesteria broke out. Three chicken houses, each 300 feet long, stood gleaming in the sunshine alongside the creek, a ribbon of chocolate-brown water.
"It's clear where the nutrients are coming from," Summers said, gesturing at a narrow ditch draining the fields near the chicken houses. It passed through a grove of maple trees, then emptied into the creek. "I don't know how much more evidence they need."
The Phosphorus Connection
Scientists once believed that phosphorus generally did not run off into water, since it binds to soil particles. Pollution efforts focused on containing nitrogen, which is far more slippery. But recent research has shown phosphorus does run off once soils are saturated.
This is a dramatic finding. Chicken manure contains more phosphorus than nitrogen, relative to what a plant digests. When a farmer applies enough manure to deliver the nitrogen that a given crop requires, a surplus of phosphorus often goes down with it.
The characteristics of a given farm – its soil type, slope and proximity to water – make it difficult to specify the danger of runoff from its land. But the peninsula's fields clearly are brimming over with phosphorus.
In Somerset and Worcester counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more than 90 percent of soil samples tested by the University of Maryland in 1997 contained as much or more phosphorus than crops needed. The two counties are home to more than one-fifth of the peninsula's chickens.
A "phosphorus sink," is how some scientists speak of the Chesapeake region. A Maryland researcher, Ken Staver, has found that each year, Delmarva adds another 10 million pounds of phosphorus to the sink, importing that much more corn, fertilizer and sewage sludge than it exports in grains and chickens.
Maryland surveys of the Pocomoke, Transquaking and Manokin river systems, where pfiesteria first entered the local lexicon, concluded that 70 percent to 87 percent of all nutrients reaching those waters came from farms.
Although there is more to farm pollution than poultry, chicken manure is richer in nutrients than waste from other Delmarva livestock, and there is more of it, according to the EPA. Manure from other livestock accounts for less than one-tenth as much nutrient pollution as chickens, according to EPA data.
Phosphorus concentrations in Pocomoke Sound have increased by more than 25 percent since 1985, according to EPA data, suffocating sea grasses that are vital habitat for fish and crabs.
"If it keeps going like this, we're going to lose all the [sea grasses] there in about five years," said Robert Magnien, a water quality expert with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Lou Moseley has fished the headwaters of the Wicomico River for 30 years. These days, every outing offers a glimpse of a natural system besieged by poultry waste. As he bounced a yellow bobber on the surface of Allen Pond in April, hoping to land a fish, the soupy brown water spoke of the hundreds of chicken houses upstream.
"The water used to be really clear here," said Moseley, 59. "With all the manure dumping into all these streams, it certainly doesn't help."
Bill Arnold, an oysterman-turned-proprietor of Captain Bill's Bait and Tackle in Phillips Hill, Del., says the poultry houses that tower over surrounding fields have hurt fishing.
"You used to be able to go to Millsboro and fill up a pickup truck with a bunch of yellow perch and herring" after a day's fishing, Arnold said, as he sorted through packages of squid in a rusted freezer. "Now you'll be lucky to catch one. There's just so much manure out there. It's live and let live around here, but it's getting to the point where it screwing up more stuff than it's helping. "
In the Air and Under the Water
Recent research has found that ammonia gas – a form of nitrogen particularly favored by algae – floats off piles of manure, with some settling into nearby ditches and creeks. A recent Dutch study found that as much as 30 percent of the nitrogen in a manure pile can land in water this way. Large fans whirring constantly on chicken houses funnel out more ammonia, which otherwise would harm chicks.
A USGS survey released in January found trace amounts of arsenic in the lower Pocomoke River in Maryland in four of five samples taken during a survey in September 1997. The highest level recorded was well below the EPA's safety standard for aquatic life but more than twice as high as levels found on seven other Chesapeake tributaries during a 1994 study. The same study found selenium as much as seven times the EPA safety standard for sea life.
"It's not an alarming finding," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, a trade group. "No one is saying this is a threat to human health. There's no indication this is specifically tied to the poultry industry."
Maryland officials stress that the levels are far below what would pose a threat to people. They are doing follow-up studies.
The effects of nutrient pollution are more easily discerned, and rivers and bays are not the only casualties: Groundwater contamination speaks of the chicken waste slathered onto soils.
Nitrates contaminate one-third of all groundwater in Delmarva's agricultural areas, according to a USGS study during the late 1980s. Many of the samples contained three to four times as much nitrate as the EPA considers safe for drinking water. Data compiled last year by the Delaware Division of Public Health found that 10 percent to 15 percent of all wells tested in Sussex County exceeded federal nitrate standards.
Although roughly half of Delmarva's 600,000 residents draw their water from private wells, the three states barely oversee their safety.
Wells that provide drinking water for 25 or more people must test water for nitrates as often as four times a year because of the threat of Blue Baby Syndrome. The rare blood disorder can be fatal to infants, although several pediatricians on the peninsula say they can recall no such cases in decades. When tests reveal contamination, state and county authorities force improvements, including new wells.
But individual wells are covered by no such safeguards.
Maryland requires tests for nitrates when a new well is drilled or when property changes hands. Virginia requires tests only for new wells. Delaware has no such requirements, although mortgage companies usually require tests.
Larry E. Willey, a well driller in Seaford, Del., said that more than one-third of the time, the water samples he collects reveal nitrates in excess of federal health standards. The frequency is "enough that it's more than an aggravation," he said. "If you go on farmland, that's where the nitrates are."
Contaminated groundwater adds to the nutrient pollution reaching rivers and bays. Studies by the USGS have shown groundwater provides as much as 80 percent of the freshwater flow in Delmarva's creeks and rivers.
Each day, tanker trucks haul from slaughterhouses 6,000 gallon loads of sludge – a mud-like paste scraped from water treatment plants. Tractors with special injectors squeeze it into the soils of farmers who accept it, using its nutrients to fertilize crops.
Perdue alone rids itself of more than 8 million gallons a year in this manner, according to correspondence from the company to the Maryland Department of the Environment. A Darling International rendering plant in Linkwood, Md., which boils down guts, blood and feathers into pet food, disposes of 2 million to 3 million gallons a year in Maryland soils. When more sludge goes down than crops can digest, excess nutrients percolate through the soil.
Irrigation nozzles send more waste into groundwater, spraying more than 3 million gallons of treated waste water daily on fields surrounding processing plants, hatcheries and rendering plants.
Townsends's plant in Millsboro, Del., spray-irrigates the 2 million gallons of waste water it generates a day, rather than discharging it toward the nutrient-polluted Indian River as in years past.
Darling's rendering plant has not sprayed its waste water for five years, according to state files, but nitrates have nonetheless risen in the groundwater beneath the factory – in part, a legacy of past spraying. Maryland authorities are considering an enforcement action against the company, according to correspondence obtained by The Post and confirmed by state and company officials.
Another company, Allen Family Foods, has contaminated its own wells with its waste at its slaughterhouse in Cordova, Md., according to Maryland files. For years, Allen has disposed of waste water by spraying it around the plant at a rate of more than 670,000 gallons a day, as recently as March 1998.
An environmental engineering survey in 1989 found nitrate levels exceeding the EPA standard for safe drinking water by nearly 50 percent in four monitoring wells. Some of the high readings were the result of long-term fertilization of nearby fields, the study concluded, but some "are also attributed to the waste water land operation."
Though the state limits how much nitrogen Allen may spray, the company regularly exceeded those standards in the early 1990s, eventually buying more land near the plant so it could spray over a larger area.
But its nitrate troubles worsened: In 1995, state tests found that the wells supplying drinking water for Allen's plant workers contained more than twice as much nitrate as the EPA deems safe. The Maryland Department of the Environment required that Allen supply bottled water to all employees and post warnings telling workers that "excessive levels of nitrate in drinking water has caused serious illness and sometimes death in infants."
Recent tests show the well water is beneath its peak level, but remains more than 50 percent above the EPA standard.
The warning signs remain on the walls.
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.
Monday: Regulating slaughterhouses
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