This isn't Chicken Salad
Doo-doo. Beginning in the 1990s
a noticeably odoriferous form of pollution, producing harmful
bacteria in the Potomac River, took its natural course
toward the river's estuary in Washington, District of Columbia.
The polite way of describing the source of this problem
is chicken fecal matter, the product of 90
million chickens near and in the eastern panhandle
of West Virginia.
It has been estimated that
the average poultry house brings about 25,000 birds to market
weight every 42 days; and, in a year, that house generates
167 tons of chicken litter (manure and wood shavings). The
litter is used as fertilizer, as are the 5,200 pounds of
dead birds from each house, or is fed to cattle. All together,
the manure produced by farms under corporate contracts may
well equal the waste from the entire human population of
There is an old observation
pertinent here. There are two things you don't want to see
made: sausage and legislation. Add chickens to that list.
At the end of the 1990s
federal officials estimated that three-quarters of the 350
poultry farmers in the Potomac Valley lacked the proper
equipment or plans to dispose of the manure and about half
didn't employ recommended methods for disposing of the dead
birds. These problems continue to occur.
the runoff from agricultural lands makes its way
to the Potomac and flows by the federal regulators' doorsteps
alerting their sensibilities. On the way to the
Potomac's estuary the river passes through Maryland, Delaware,
and Virginia where more than 600 million chickens reside
producing greater than 800,000 tons of manure annually.
The Chesapeake Bay is a recipient of farm waste too. Beginning
in July 2001 chicken farmers from the Delmarva Peninsula
-- Delaware, Maryland, Virginia -- began shipping poultry
litter by train to midwestern grain farms.
Farm runoff has been implicated
in outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicda.
However, early 1999 DNA testing of the Potomac River watershed
at low water for West Virginia's Department of Agriculture
led its commissioner to applaud the success of voluntary
waste management practices. Still, American Rivers in 1997 and
1998 declared the Potomac as one of the ten most endangered
rivers in North America. An in-depth examination of
the poultry industry in West Virginia appeared in the Charleston
Planning. Neither the state
nor county governments planned well for the tripling of
the eastern counties' poultry business in the late 1980s
and into the 1990s. The governmental emphasis on job
creation foreclosed a more holistic view encompassing
the new jobs' adverse effects on the environment in which
citizens live and tourists visit. Long-term planning
in West Virginia for land-use and economic development,
not limited to the broiler industry, leaves much to be desired.
In late 1995, a full-scale
cleanup plan was proposed with federal assistance and federal
dollars have followed. So far the approach has been one
of voluntary compliance through the use of best
management practices (BMPs). Will it work? Only time
will tell. It is difficult to see how Potomac Valley
farmlands can sustain continuous application of phosphorous-rich
manure and remain healthy.
farmland in West Virginia's growth areas, such as the
Eastern Panhandle, is important. The 2000 Legislature passed
a bill allowiing for preservation by perpetual protective
easements. the governing agencies are the West Virginia
Agriculture Protection Authority and county commissions.
Money. A major issue
in cleanup of the poultry mess is money. EPA Region
III has taken the position that the burden rests upon
the broiler industry to pay for the additional costs
of cleanup, just as other chemical polluters do. Maryland
has adopted this regulatory position. Large poultry
companies, called processors or integrators,
are pushing for the chicken farmers to bear the burden
of cleaning up the manure mess.
In September 2000 Virginia's
State Water Control Board adopted rules regulating poultry
farmers and poultry processors. Maryland has created hundreds
of miles of buffer forests along stream fronts to filter
drainage into the Chesapeake Bay from fertilzer-ridden farms.
Under vertical integration
the big processors, such as Pilgrim's Pride (which absorbed
WLR a/k/a Wampler), Tyson Foods, and Perdue Farms, control
each step of the poultry production ladder. Pilgrim's
Pride is the dominant player in the eastern panhandle.
WLR Foods, Inc. and Wampler Foods, Inc. were sued by West
Virginia's Attorney General on several grounds including
misrepresenting "the true nature of agricultural opportunities"
to poultry growers.
In August 1998 negotiations
between the industry and the EPA were at a standstill.
Previously, in July 1998, the EPA had proposed further cuts
in poultry runoff in the second round of new state water
pollution limits. In Hardy County, for example, the
new proposed runoff reduction is to be 38 percent.
In September 1998 the federal Department of Agriculture
entered the fray with draft regulations to control runoff
from farms with more than 100,000 chickens or more than
There is optimism
for cleaner water, in the long term, through enforcement
of the Clean Water Act [the common name for the
Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FPWCA)].
Last updated on Wednesday, July 25, 2001