The Daily Record
May 7, 2021
Poultry is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, as dietary preferences favor chicken over beef and farming and processing technologies have brought a new era of consolidated mass production. Corporations operating poultry facilities have for decades been able to avoid regulatory scrutiny by way of the economic benefits they provide these communities, while families have welcomed an influx of “cheap meat” at the grocery store.
However, this has not come without significant environmental and health consequences, particularly in our region. Maryland and Delaware are a hub for our nation’s poultry needs. According to the Pew Environment Group, six percent of the entire country’s production occurs in these two states, on less than half a percent of its landmass. The consequences of this density have been catastrophic, and a reckoning has been long overdue. But today, environmental justice advocates are sounding the alarm on how their communities have been wracked by pollution from the poultry industry, how regulators failed to act, and what must be done to address the resulting public health fallout.
Poultry processing is a dirty business, requiring five gallons of clean water to process one chicken. In turn, a typical processing plant can generate millions of gallons of wastewater daily, which is contaminated with feathers, dirt, fecal matter, blood, and flesh. This wastewater and sludge, after it is treated, is sprayed and dumped on croplands and forests, or directly discharged into surface water bodies like rivers or creeks.
If done according to regulations and permits, the waste is absorbed by crops and vegetation without impact on the broader community. However, if wastewater is not treated and disposed of appropriately, groundwater contamination can result. Poultry wastewater is high in nitrates, which has been linked to severe health problems such as birth defects, brain damage, and cancers. The density of chickens to available land in the Delmarva area exacerbate this problem extensively. In short, there is too much waste in too small an area to dispose of it.
Earlier this month, our firm announced a landmark settlement involving Mountaire Farms, one of the largest chicken processing companies in the country. We alleged that for over 20 years, Mountaire knew that its illegal disposal practices were polluting the groundwater and air of Millsboro, Delaware. Instead of fixing the problem, the company rapidly increased production and waste generation, creating a substantial threat to the people of Millsboro – contaminating their drinking water, causing serious health problems, and diminishing their property values and way of life. This settlement – believed to be the largest ever involving nitrate groundwater contamination – includes a $65 million fund for members of the community, $120 million for the necessary plant upgrades and remediation at Mountaire, and $20 million for ongoing operations and maintenance.
This settlement came on the heels of a win last month by the Chesapeake Legal Alliance that will require Maryland to regulate gaseous ammonia emissions from poultry farms. Combined, the ramifications of these cases will ripple throughout the region.
First, the image of chicken raising as a “family business,” propagated by the industry, is being exposed. Chickens are no longer raised by small farms; in fact, the number of individual farms raising chickens for food has declined by 98 percent since 1950. That means big industrial farms are processing poultry, with major impacts on those regions.
Second, it has become evident that environmental regulators are not only ill-equipped to stop this pollution, but in some instances have turned a blind eye. In the Mountaire case, we had to ask a federal judge to stop Delaware’s environmental watchdog from entering into a consent decree with the company that would have allowed them to continue polluting the environment and pay a small fine. Similarly, last month Maryland regulators proposed giving $13 million to Eastern Shore chicken plant Valley Farms to clean up their pollution, when the corporation itself should be footing the bill.
Third, very well-meaning and well-educated environmental groups have tried to expose and stop environmental injustices but are grossly underfunded and understaffed. However, the Mountaire case has sent a signal to other poultry companies that a legal team with economic resources and expertise is willing to take them on at great time and expense – creating a more even playing field.
Clean air and water is a basic human right. While the poultry industry may have avoided scrutiny for decades, they are now on notice. Nitrate contamination is now easier to identify, and also easier to treat. Environmentalists also now have the legal firepower to expose wrongdoers, and advances in technology have thankfully made pollution easier and less expensive to treat.
Ultimately, there are no longer any excuses to let the industry pollute with impunity and escape with a slap on the wrist. The new reality is that there is now a manner to hold them accountable that will make a difference in the lives of Maryland residents.
Philip C. Federico is a founding and senior partner with Schochor, Federico and Staton, P.A. in Baltimore.