BALTIMORE — Environmental advocates Thursday called for wider federal and state oversight of livestock and poultry-raising operations to protect waterways and drinking wells from manure and other pollutants.
The groups' push comes two days after a lawsuit pitting environmental activists against Salisbury-based poultry giant Perdue Farms and a Worcester County farm that raises poultry for Perdue opened in U.S. District Court in the city.
More midsized operations should be required to have discharge permits and be subject to the federal Clean Water Act, representatives of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the group Environment Maryland said Thursday at a pier on Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The Environmental Protection Agency says drinking water sources that serve 43 percent of the U.S. population have some level of pathogen contamination associated with animal agriculture, said Karen Steuer, director of Pew's campaign to reform animal agriculture.
Responsibility for preventing the pollutants from running into streams and groundwater needs to be extended to meat-production companies that own the animals and determine many factors in how growers operate through their contract agreements, Steuer said.
The groups said they plan to present the EPA with more than 35,000 signatures from people who support tougher limits on pollution from “factory farms,” which Environment Maryland said send 100 million pounds of nitrogen pollution into the Chesapeake Bay annually.
“We can't let agribusiness treat the Chesapeake Bay like its personal sewer,” Environment Maryland advocate Meg Cronin said.
At the center of the dispute in U.S. District Court is whether Perdue and farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson should be held responsible for effluents that environmentalists contend flowed from the farm where the Hudsons have raised poultry for Perdue and grazed cows.
According to court documents, the Hudson Farm submitted paperwork to the Maryland Department of Environment to be covered under a permit that prohibits them from discharging pollutants except under extreme storm conditions.
Among those testifying in court Thursday were state MDE employees.
After environmentalists complained about what they believed was a pile of chicken manure close to a drainage ditch at the Hudson Farm, MDE directed the family to move the pile farther from the ditch and to place straw bales around it to absorb runoff.
Lawyers for Perdue and the Hudsons said the pile was treated biosolids intended to be used later as fertilizer and state inspectors said it contained no chicken manure.
The defendants contend the plaintiffs, the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastal Trust, have scant evidence that the poultry growers polluted the Pocomoke River, which runs into the Bay.
Joining the environmentalists' call Thursday for more regulation was Emmitsburg farmer Will Morrow, who said he raises hogs, sheep, goats and chickens but stops runoff from going into streams. He fences off the smaller animals from livestock, uses buffer strips in which plants absorb nutrients and stockpiles manure during the winter, he said.
Many of the practices are required under new Maryland nutrient management regulations for farms.
“Here in Maryland we are pretty darn regulated already at the state level,” Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said Thursday, noting that the state recently approved more stringent regulations.
“Maryland is ahead of its goal on Bay cleanup and [is] picking up the slack for other contributors, including urban areas that haven't reached their goals,” Connelly said.
The EPA is considering additional federal regulation governing the handling of manure at “concentrated animal feeding operations.” A proposal is expected in the spring.