Inside a poultry farm.    Photo by Adobe StockMaryland produces enough poultry litter to fill M&T Bank stadium twice, and that amount will continue to grow, with at least 200 new poultry farms recently permitted. (Adobe Stock)

It's Time to Hold Big Chicken Companies Responsible for Their Own Waste

A broad coalition of environmental groups banded together during the 2016 Maryland General Assembly to support legislation requiring poultry companies to take responsibility for the manure their chickens produce. The legislation will protect Maryland farmers and taxpayers from costs that should be borne by the large poultry companies.

The Problem

Excess manure—from any animal—can saturate farm fields and pollute local creeks, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay if not handled properly. Currently, large poultry companies control almost all aspects of the chicken production process except handling of the poultry litter. And it's an enormous amount of litter. Each year, Maryland produces enough poultry litter to fill M&T Bank Stadium two times—far more than can beneficially be used to fertilize farm fields. In addition, large industrial farms are expanding, including 200 new poultry houses that have been permitted for construction on the Delmarva Peninsula, including Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester counties. This construction would mean an additional 10 million chickens and about 20 million more pounds of manure per year.

The Poultry Litter Management Act

The lead sponsors of the bill, known as the Poultry Litter Management Act (SB496 and HB599), were Senator Joan Carter Conway (District 43), Senator Richard Madaleno (District 18), Delegate Clarence Lam and Delegate Shane Robinson (District 39). "My constituents in Baltimore, like many Marylanders, are paying to reduce pollution from sewage plants and polluted stormwater runoff. It's only fair that big chicken companies be responsible for their waste," said Senator Joan Carter Conway (District 43), Chair, Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The legislation would have require poultry companies to remove and properly manage all poultry waste above and beyond what their contracted chicken farmers can legally apply on their fields or utilize in another approved manner, at no cost to the farmer. This may have included finding other, beneficial purposes for the manure, so that it can be used safely. Family farmers who grow chickens for these companies should not have to foot the bill for waste removal. Big chicken companies have the necessary resources and the responsibility to help Maryland's manure overload problem. If poultry companies become responsible for their waste, that would ensure Maryland taxpayers and farmers no longer bear the major burden of reducing this type of pollution.

Nearly everyone in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is doing more to reduce pollution under the Chesapeake Bay clean-up plan. All Maryland households are paying more to reduce pollution from sewage plants. Maryland's most developed areas invest taxpayer dollars and local government resources in cleaning up polluted runoff. A responsible dog owner picks up after his or her dogs. Big chicken companies need to do their part by taking full responsibility for any excess manure from their chickens.

Phosphorus Overload on the Eastern Shore

A recent U.S. Geological Survey water report found the rivers of the Eastern Shore have concentrations of phosphorus that are among the "highest in the nation" due to agricultural operations. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has estimated about 228,000 tons of excess manure are currently applied to crop fields in Maryland; this is likely to increase with the recent and future expansion of chicken houses. Manure makes good fertilizer, but too much manure applied over decades has left many Eastern Shore fields saturated with phosphorus. The excess phosphorus ends up in local creeks and rivers, causing dead zones of low oxygen, fish kills, restrictions on shell-fish harvesting, and swimming advisories.

The legislation would have been a critical next step in Maryland's plan to reduce phosphorus pollution from agriculture. In 2015, the Hogan Administration enacted regulations restricting farmers from over-applying poultry manure on fields that cannot absorb it. This 2016 legislation would have placed the cost of properly using or handling that excess manure in the hands of the big companies, not small farmers or the public. Small farmer-growers currently shoulder much of that responsibility, with considerable direct and indirect subsidies from taxpayers.

Public dollars subsidize farmers who plant winter crops that soak up excess nutrients from soybean and corn fields. The cost to taxpayers is about $20 million a year. In addition, taxpayers contribute to a program that transports some excess manure to areas that can safely use it. Historically, some poultry corporations have made voluntary contributions to the same manure transport program. Unfortunately, this voluntary arrangement doesn't spread the responsibility equitably among companies, and recent regulations may call into question, reduce, and even eliminate these contributions—at a time when those transportation costs are expected to rise significantly as the 2015 phosphorus management regulations are implemented and as the poultry industry continues to grow.

Agriculture is the single, largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland waterways. About 44 percent of the nitrogen and 57 percent of the phosphorus polluting the Bay comes from farms, and much of that comes from animal manure. But dollar for dollar, reducing pollution to the Chesapeake Bay from farms is far cheaper than reducing it from any other source, including sewage plants, stormwater systems, and septic systems.

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