Despite a cold, breezy night, Eastern Shore residents came out to attend a panel forum discussing industrial poultry operations, and how they may affect Accomack and Northampton Counties. The event was sponsored by Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES), and was moderated by Marc Steiner. The event will be rebroadcast on Delmarva Public Radio’s Marc Steiner Show.
The Industrial Poultry Forum panel included Mark Brush, Associate Professor of Marine Science-Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Roger Everton, VA DEQ, Manager, Water Compliance and Monitoring, Jillian P. Fry, PhD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Adam James, Town of Onancock Fire Chief, Carole Morrison, former Industrial Poultry grower, now small-scale farm grower, Maria Payan, Consultant, Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Margaret Sanner, VA Asst. Director and Senior Attorney, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Neil Zahradka, VA DEQ, Manager, Office of Land Applications Programs.
Mark Brush of VIMS gave a presentation on some of the models they are using to help predict the effects poultry might have on a given location, “We have developed a model to predict nitrogen loads, and a second model on what is the impact once the nitrogen is in the water, and the effects of land use change, especially as it deals with poultry. We have digitized the number of poultry houses on the shore and have an estimate of the number of birds. There is some uncertainty in those numbers, we know the density of the houses, and how much nitrogen a typical bird will produce, what we don’t know is how much that waste volatilizes, how much is contained by concrete pads, how much washes off, but we are able to bracket a reasonable value for nitrogen. We also incorporate other sources, such as point sources, septic tanks, and our model processes as it moves through the groundwater down into the coastal groundwater or the lagoon downstream. The model then takes those inputs and based on first principles of biological marine science we can predict the response of the phytoplankton, the single celled algae that grow in the water and bloom.
With Accomack ran the model and increased the number of poultry houses…the watersheds are fairly sensitive, if you increase the number of birds, you get an increase in nitrogen. What you do see is that these watersheds are indeed quite sensitive to any increase in loads. It doesn’t take much nitrogen to ramp up the amount of phytoplankton and algae. The models do show the sensitivity to poultry, and how increases can increase the nitrogen levels in these lagoons”.
Maria Payan offered a first hand, personal view of living within range of a large scale operation, “What I want to describe is a community view of what it is like to live near industrial operations. When they had a mass mortality at the farm across the street, 20,000 decomposing birds in summer, if you can imagine that…we heard a lot about water quality and different things, nothing about what’s blowing out the fans at the neighbors. In Delaware, 88% of the water does not support swimming, 97% does not support aquatic life. This is a defining moment in your community, because once the bell rings you can’t un-ring it. I suggest you get proactive and decide what you want your community to look like.”
Jillian Fry spoke on the public health effects of large scale poultry operations, “Some of the pollutants we are worried about in large scale poultry operations, when you have high density, some of the things that are leaching out includes nutrients, pathogens which may or may not be resistant to antibiotics, drug residues used in animal production, ammonia, particulate particles and heavy metals. The large industrial fans that are forcibly pushing the air out of the large poultry operations, if these fans shut down, if there is an electrical outage, there will be a large buildup of gases coming off the manure, and it will kill the birds; so, it is important that the air is circulated out, and where does it go? Into the community. If there is proper zoning and there are proper setbacks, hopefully there won’t be health impacts, but that is not always the case. Exposure routes, how does this pollutant get to the human population? Research has documented the housefly as an exposure route, with antibiotic resistant bacteria. Exposure routes also include workers, and workers are also a population that are at risk…after returning to their communities after work, they could be carrying some pathogens. Environmental regulations have not been created to protect public health. There is no air monitoring, there is no monitoring of people’s private wells, 2/3 residents, according to USGS data, in these two counties of Northampton and Accomack rely on private unmonitored wells. There is no system in place to make sure that poultry operations are not impacting your water.”
Carole Morrison brought a perspective of someone who had worked in the industry, operating a large scale series of poultry houses for over 20 years. She made the point that, despite the numbers of chickens, many of those who operate poultry houses are actually struggling right at the poverty line. Given that the grower must absorb the cost of building the houses, which can be well over $300,000 each), the offset of the poultry industry owners providing the local growers with the birds, feed, and medications hardly makes up the difference. Ms. Morrison said she made more profit off of her 500 hens than she did from her large scale poultry operation.
During the question and answer period, Dr. Art Schwarzschild of Willis Wharf asked about the criteria for issuing permits for poultry houses, “On the map showing streams that were impaired, it seems like all the streams on the bay side of the Eastern Shore showed some signs of impairment, when you are doing your permitting, for applications of manure or other things, does that take into account what is currently on the ground right now or just what the loads for that would be, does it look at what that individual permit is doing or does it take into account the cumulative effect looking at all the other permits that have already been issued?”
Neil Zahradka of DEQ responded, “That gets into the source of impairments, typically you are going to have a variety of sources of nonpoint source pollution. Typically, what we’ll see is that permitting is not affected by the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load of nutrients into the Bay), because one of the things that permits require is the implementation of best management practices”.
“In Maryland we have a phosphorus management tool, it was recognized that we had way too much manure, the science was known for a long time, and then the regulators caught up to the science, mainly because of the Chesapeake Bay watershed TMDL cleanup effort, still with the tool, the legislators said they are not sure they can ask the farmers to meet the timeline because of the economic questions, so even as we know that density is not compatible with a well-functioning environment, they are still issuing permits. And the taxpayers are picking up the bill to truck the manure somewhere else. The cumulative effects of animal density are not taken into account when issuing permits. As poultry has taken a larger hold, poverty has gone up and population has gone down,” said Jillian Fry.
After a gentleman from the audience produced a very thorough, well documented account of the how the poultry industry may actually benefit a community, Carole Morrison responded, “Your figures are wonderful, but, as they show, in the early 1900s, these two counties were some of the richest in the country. With the growth of poultry, they are probably two of the poorest”.
In the end, after hearing presentations, the most pertinent question was just how many chicken houses can we support before we reach the tipping point?
Mark Brush of VIMS summed it up, “One of the uses of the types of models can certainly run those scenarios, the problem is that there are a number of uncertainties;we run with these parameters and those parameters we don’t know very well, and there are special things about the chickens that give us headaches, such as if the waste is kept on these pads, how much really leaches, it’s hard to know that, how much volatilizes, it’s hard to know that, how is exported or imported and where does it go, so there is some uncertainty but this is what these models are useful for”.