EIP Debunks False Claims by Industry About Poultry Enforcement Report

WASHINGTON, D.C.– The Delmarva Chicken Association recently issued a press statement and published an opinion article that were riddled with factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oct. 28 report, “Blind Eye to Big Chicken.

“This is sadly par for the course for a lobbying group that is more intent on protecting a polluting industry with billions of dollars in annual revenues than in caring about the health of the Chesapeake Bay or the people of the Eastern Shore,” said Tom Pelton, Director of Communications for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

EIP’S report concluded that 84 percent of the Maryland poultry operations inspected by the state between 2017 and 2020 had one or more violations of their state water pollution control permits. But only four facilities – or two percent of the total—paid penalties, according to more than 5,000 pages of public records reviewed by EIP.

About two thirds of the poultry operations that failed inspections had a waste management problem, such as manure left outside where rain can wash it into waterways, inadequate waste storage facilities, or unsanitary disposal of dead chickens, according to EIP’s report.  As a result of chronic manure overapplication, phosphorus pollution and algae in the Eastern Shore’s rivers have not improved in two decades, according to state water monitoring data.

In a December 9 opinion article published in Maryland Matters, Holly Selby, Executive Director of the Delmarva Chicken Association, a poultry lobbying group, wrote that the Environmental Integrity Project “paid D.C. lobbyists to promote” the report.  This is a flat-out fabrication.  EIP did not pay any lobbyists, from D.C. or anywhere else, to promote the “Blind Eye to Big Chicken” report.

The report, based on a careful review by EIP staff analysts and attorneys of more than 5,000 pages of public records and 20 years of state water quality monitoring data, was researched and written entirely in-house, and promoted by its own  communications director, with no hiring of outside lobbyists for any purpose.

In a separate Nov 22 statement on its website, the Delmarva Chicken Association asserted on its website that EIP’s report made a “mistake” that is “gravely detrimental to the report’s topline conclusions” by using a Fertility Index Value (FIV) of 100 as a yardstick to determine an excessive application of phosphorus, above the needs of crops, instead of a FIV of 150.  This is both inaccurate and a quibble that would have very little impact on our report’s overall conclusions.

The bottom line is that – no matter which standard you use – the vast majority of the farms whose records where available applied more poultry manure to their crops than was needed, contributing to the risk of polluted runoff into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. The state of Maryland penalized none of the farms for this manure overapplication, even when it was self-reported by the farms to the state.

In our report, we examined annual implementation reports filed with MDA in 2019 (the most recent year for which public records were available) by 57 poultry farms that applied manure to their own fields.  We found that 55 of these 57 poultry operations (or 96 percent) applied phosphorus in manure to at least one field above the needs of crops (above FIV of 100).

The Delmarva Chicken Association argues that we should have used a FIV of 150. If we had done so, our results would have been nearly identical. This is because 54 of these 57 poultry farms (or 94 percent) also applied phosphorus above a FIV of 150.

So whether it’s 94 percent of these poultry farms over-applying manure to their fields, or 96 percent of them, it makes little difference to our overall conclusion that too many farms are spreading too much manure on their fields for the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Of course, it should be noted, as EIP’s report explains, that there are far more than 57 poultry farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A total of 503 poultry operations filed annual reports with MDA in the most recent available year (2019).  But about 90 percent of these poultry operations do not have their own crop fields, and so – because of a quirk in state law that favors secrecy for the agricultural industry – the public records that would reveal how much manure is being applied to how many acres of fields were not available for these other farms that export their manure to other farms.

Here is some historical background, and an explanation for why we concluded that a FIV of 100 was appropriate to use for the year 2019.

Maryland’s Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 (also called Maryland’s Nutrient Management Law) has required farmers to comply with nutrient management plans for phosphorus since July of 2005, with potential fines of up to $500 if they do not follow the plans (after a warning).  The law says: “By July 1, 2005, a person who, in operating a farm, uses sludge or animal manure, shall comply with a nutrient management plan for nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Maryland law states that “An operator who fails to implement or otherwise comply with a nutrient management plan that meets the requirements of this chapter is subject to a written warning for a first violation. If, following a reasonable period of time from receipt of this notice, an operator fails to implement or otherwise comply with a plan that meets the requirements of this chapter, the operator is subject to an administrative penalty for a second or subsequent violation of not more than $500 for each violation.”

In creating those nutrient management plans, the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Manual, which sets the standards that certified nutrient management consultants must follow, established the “excessive” threshold value for phosphorus in the soil at a Fertility Index Value or FIV of 100 for most crops (except tobacco.)  MDA’s standards tell farms not to apply additional phosphorus to nearly all crops grown in fields with FIV greater than 100, with some exceptions and variances in certain circumstances.

So, in determining what is an “excessive” level of phosphorus on most farms, the Environmental Integrity Project used that standard of a FIV of 100 because this was specified by the Maryland Nutrient Management Manual and in force in 2019, the year that we examined the Annual Implementation Reports (AIRS) for poultry farms.

Starting in the year 2020, Maryland’s new Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) guidelines incorporated into the nutrient management planning process a new FIV trigger value of 150 FIV for possible manure application restrictions, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

But, as stated earlier, even before the PMT went into effect, Maryland had an existing law that required farms to have and follow nutrient management plans, whether those plans incorporated limits of FIV 100 or FIV 150.  The laws required farms to follow their plans as they existed, and we discovered that many farms did not.  However, as our report indicates, neither MDA nor the Maryland Department of the Environment imposed any penalties on any farms that failed to follow their plans through manure overapplication, even when the farms self-reported the exceedances to the state in their Annual Implementation Reports.

“Just as modest fines for speeding encourage drivers to slow down and protect lives, predictable and modest penalties for failing to follow nutrient management plans would help protect the Chesapeake Bay,” said Pelton of EIP. “And the big poultry companies themselves that earn billions revenues every year should be held financially responsible for managing this waste, not just their small contract farmers.”

Back on Nov. 1, the Delmarva Chicken Association released a different statement about our report that was also factually inaccurate.

In that earlier statement, the poultry lobbying group said: “Even this report, in its fine print, documents Maryland chicken farmers’ overwhelming compliance with environmental regulations. The report shows that only 6 percent of chicken farms recorded possible overapplication of litter to farm fields in annual implementation reports (AIRs), and that the vast majority of Maryland poultry farms are in compliance with their nutrient management plans.”

That is false.  EIP’s report said no such thing.  Our report said at the top of page 5 that 51 percent (29 of 57) of the poultry farms whose records were available in 2019 admitted to the state in their Annual Implementation Reports that they applied manure over the amounts in their nutrient management plans.  We don’t know what happened to the manure from the other 446 poultry operations, because they don’t have their own crop fields and exported their manure to other farms. Because this manure was exported, there are no public records available to show whether the farms that received this manure are in compliance or not in compliance with their nutrient management plans.  So it’s false to say that our report “shows” that “the vast majority of Maryland poultry farms are in compliance with their nutrient management plans.”

The poultry association also wrote this on Nov. 1 about our report: “Scientists monitoring the Chesapeake Bay have documented that farmers have reduced their nutrient inputs to the Bay by 23 percent in the past 25 years, while developed areas in the Bay’s watershed have increased their pollution loads by 45 percent.”

This is also incorrect.  The lobbying group is using old Chesapeake Bay Program Model estimates.  Because these models are, by definition, computer simulations and estimates of what could happen in the future, it is incorrect to say that scientists have “documented” that farmers have reduced pollution this much in the past.  It’s fair to say that the Bay Program model has, in the past, projected that farmers will likely reduce their nutrient inputs into the Bay, based on a projected likely effectiveness of planting trees along streams and incorporating other best management practices that may or may not be maintained and may or may not actually work to the extent that the computer model predicts.  But these models have been widely criticized and were never intended to show past progress.

The only real documented evidence that exists is the water quality monitoring on the Eastern Shore, which we explain and document in the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oct. 28 report, “Stagnant Waters.”  This state data, over the last 20 years at 18 water quality monitoring stations, shows that phosphorus levels in the Eastern Shore’s rivers flowing into the Bay have remained about the same over the last 20 years, while nitrogen levels have fallen, likely because of a reduction in nitrogen oxide air pollution over this time period.

The poultry industry lobbying group claims that our report acknowledges the success of the MDE’s oversight, with our report saying that “the number of sites considered by MDE to have ‘significant violations’ – meaning violations that are chronic or threaten significant impact to the environment — has declined.”

This is misleading.  Right after this statement on page 19, it important to note that our report also says, on the same page,  “The meaning of this supposed decline in ‘significant violations’ is questionable, because MDE records also show that 17 poultry operations were continuously noncompliant with their water pollution control permits during three or more state inspections from June 2017 through November 2020 – which would seem to qualify them as chronic and therefore significant problems. Most of these repeat offenders (14 of 17) had both waste-management problems and record-keeping failures. Moreover, as noted earlier, 51 percent of the poultry operations for which public records were available in 2019 reported to the state that they had applied manure to their crop fields in amounts above the limits in their nutrient management plans. This would make them in violation of the water pollution control permits that MDE is supposed to be enforcing. The frequent nature of these overapplication violations should make them ‘significant,’ even if MDE does not classify them this way.”

For a copy of EIP’s report, ‘Blind Eye to Big Chicken,” click here.

For any questions, contact EIP Director of Communications Tom Pelton at (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.