Chickens, Manure Found Piled at Tyson

Open Pit For Dead Chickens
Chicken carcasses pile up in an open, watery pit at one of Tyson Food's chicken farms in Salisbury, Md. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2000; Page B01

Piles of chicken carcasses and manure have been stacking up in shallow open-air pits on Maryland's Eastern Shore, posing a potential threat to the area's ground water and apparently violating a 1998 agreement between federal regulators and the nation's largest poultry processor.

Recent inspections revealed chicken feathers, bones and other remains decomposing in black, watery sludge pits, and piles of manure baking in the sun on at least two farms owned by Tyson Food Inc. in Salisbury, Md. Nearby storage sheds, built to hold such waste, went largely unused.

A Washington Post reporter who observed the scene last week described it to state officials. State inspectors later visited two farms and confirmed yesterday that conditions posed health risks and appear to violate standard agricultural practices.

Federal inspectors plan to visit the farms, managed by contract farmers for Tyson, today to evaluate the handling of chicken waste. "We will be taking a look at that," said Donna Heron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under a $6 million settlement of a federal pollution lawsuit--the largest Clean Water Act penalty in Maryland history--Tyson agreed to install the sheds at a cost as high as $250,000 on each of its six farms. The company agreed to store chicken waste in the sheds to prevent it from running into state waterways.

But state officials said the sheds at the farms they visited had barely been used.

"When they have enough manure that the shed is full . . . it's acceptable to stockpile it in fields, but in a way it's not going to cause any runoff or problems," said Dave Pushkar, district manager for the compliance division of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "In these cases, there was no problem as far as being able to put it in the shed."

Asked why the sheds were not being used, Tyson officials "didn't have any reason," Pushkar said. State officials ordered Tyson managers to move the decaying birds and manure into the composting sheds.

An official at Tyson's corporate headquarters in Springdale, Ark., said the company has complied with the state's order. On one of the farms, many dead birds were placed in open-air pits to decompose, said John Lea, chief marketing officer for Tyson. Because the composting shed was new, there was not enough manure to mix in with the dead birds to help the decomposition process, Lea said, so the remains were put in the pit.

Lea said he could not explain why inspectors found manure piled outside the composting shed on a second farm.

"The sheds . . . were built for the explicit purpose of storing manure and compost remains, and that's how they should be used," Lea said. "All that work requested by [the state] has been completed on that farm."

Pushkar said he will send inspectors to a third farm to investigate reports of decaying birds in an uncovered, water-filled pit while a composting shed nearby stood empty.

"We have concern for ground-water problems," Pushkar said. "If it's going on at two farms, how many others is it happening at?"

Tyson agreed to install and use composting sheds after it bought Hudson Foods Inc.'s poultry processing farms and operations in Maryland in January 1998.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had sued Hudson for dumping waste water containing excessive levels of fecal coliform, phosphorous, nitrogen, ammonia and other pollutants from its Berlin, Md., processing plant into an Eastern Shore waterway.

Under the May 1998 settlement, which Tyson must abide by, the company could face as much as $75,000 in fines if it fails to build and use the sheds.

"If these allegations are true, we're surprised and disappointed, given the fact that these Tyson-owned facilities are operating under a consent decree which mandates proper disposal," said Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland office.

A local farmer hired to raise chickens for Tyson on one of the farms told a Washington Post reporter that he was instructed by Tyson managers to dispose of the dead chickens and manure in a shallow pit behind the composting shed that Tyson built last year.

"I didn't like to see chickens lying around out there like that," said William "Butch" Trader, who has since received an eviction notice from Tyson.

On that farm, state inspectors said they found the remains of about 3,000 birds in a water-filled pit about 4 feet deep, 20 feet long and 15 feet wide. The nearby shed, which is equipped with special compartments for the composting of dead birds, had a relatively small amount of manure and sludge in it, Pushkar said.

On a second farm, state inspectors found two large heaps of manure piled in a field near a composting shed.

"We'd be interested in looking at their other farms, but hopefully the fact that we're into it on these two means that they've gone in and taken care of any problems they may have known were existing," Pushkar said.

Lea said Tyson officials removed the flock from the farm Trader was managing because the company is shutting down several of its corporate farms in Berlin, hoping to eventually sell all of them.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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