Eastern Shore Poultry Sludge Tank Failure Demonstrates High Risk of Storing Polluting Substances

Spill Shines a Light on a Regulatory Loophole in Maryland

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is calling on Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to conduct a rigorous investigation into why a massive above-ground storage tank filled with processed poultry sludge failed earlier this month, causing more than 30,000 gallons of pollutant-laden waste to spill into nearby wetlands. 

In response to emailed questions from CBF, an MDE spokesman said the facility’s contractor removed the spilled sludge last week and spread straw mulch over the area. MDE is now investigating the spill of the substance, known as DAF, which refers to the dissolved air flotation process that removes the nutrient-rich solids from industrial wastewater, which are later used as fertilizer on farm fields. 

Residents and others raised concerns about the open-air sludge tank when it was first proposed because it would accept substances from poultry processing and rendering plants like the one formerly owned by Valley Proteins in Linkwood that failed to meet state operating requirements for years. The substances are known to smell bad and cause pollution issues if excessively applied on land. They are typically extremely high in nitrogen and phosphorus, the two main pollutants harming the overall health of Chesapeake Bay. 

CBF is also encouraging state agencies to review and consider adding regulations around substances removed from point source polluters such as rendering plants and wastewater treatment plants. These substances include poultry slurry and cake-like solids that are separated from wastewater during the treatment process and then, in many cases, later applied as fertilizer on agricultural land.

CBF believes the insufficient regulations around removed substances creates a significant loophole for polluters. Maryland state law does not require point source polluters to be responsible for this waste after it leaves industrial properties that operate under state-issued discharge permits. The removed pollutants are also not known to be adequately tracked by the state, leaving an incomplete picture of what happens to the pollutants after leaving industrial facilities. 

In the case of the poultry sludge tank, we know some of these removed substances have been discharged, without authorization, into Maryland wetlands. In other cases, removed substances may be over-applied to farm fields resulting in excessive amounts of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden runoff reaching the Bay and its tributaries. Nutrient management plan regulations administered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) are intended to ensure the proper and safe use of any nutrient source on farmland, but neither MDA nor MDE make clear that such plans for farms where these substances are applied result in this outcome. With the lax oversight, localities have been left on their own, with Dorchester County scrambling to prohibit tanks when one was proposed, and Wicomico County limiting new tanks after the one failing now was built. 

In response, CBF’s Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard issued the following statement: 

“The sludge tank failure in Hebron is a glaring example of Maryland’s mismanagement of pollution from industrial and agricultural facilities. The state is failing to track and mitigate nutrient pollution-laden substances that are removed from facilitates that operate with a state-issued discharge permit—a major loophole in Maryland’s water quality protections. 

“In this case, poultry rendering facilities are filtering out nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater, creating a pollution-concentrated sludge, and then sending it to be stored in a massive tank to later be applied to farms as a fertilizer. Despite these nutrient pollutants making their way back into the environment, the pollutants are not known to be adequately tracked by the state and are no longer the responsibility of the facility where they were generated. In the state's view, these pollutants have been mitigated through land application requirements. Meanwhile insufficient accounting and responsibility for these applications continue to compromise Maryland’s efforts to reduce water pollution from agriculture, the state’s largest source of Chesapeake Bay pollution.  

“The situation becomes even worse for the environment and local communities when one of these waste storage facilities fails, and the concentrated pollution spills into one location. It’s time for the state to seriously examine and address the issue of removed substances.” 


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A.J. Metcalf

Former Maryland Media & Communications Coordinator, CBF

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