Across the Chesapeake Region, Ammonia Air Pollution from Poultry Adds 12 Million Pounds of Nitrogen to Bay
Washington, D.C. – A pair of new reports document the rapid growth of the poultry industry on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and in parts of the Shenandoah Valley, and the ammonia air pollution and manure runoff problems this is causing for the Chesapeake Bay.
The reports by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) use federal and state records, and the most recent available science, to show that Virginia seldom penalizes violations by poultry operations and fails to adequately monitor or control emissions that can be harmful to public health.
“Clearly, Virginia and the other Chesapeake region states need to do more to reduce this major and growing source of pollution: the poultry industry,” said Abel Russ, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “Needed steps include reasonable limits on permits for a new generation of super-sized factory farms, and requiring air pollution monitoring and controls on poultry houses.”
The first report, “Poultry Industry Pollution in the Chesapeake Region,” is a broad look at the industry’s ammonia emissions across the whole Bay watershed and how they are contributing about 12 million pounds of nitrogen – the Bay’s biggest killer – to the Chesapeake every year. That’s about a million pounds more than government estimates, and almost as much as all the nitrogen pollution from all the sewage treatment plants, sewage overflows, and industrial wastewater plants in Virginia every year (12.6 million pounds).
The second report, “Poultry and Manure Production on Virginia’s Eastern Shore,” is a narrower examination of the growth of the poultry industry in Accomack County, on the Eastern Shore, where the number of poultry houses has nearly doubled in recent years.
EIP’s examination of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality records found that 74 percent of Eastern Shore poultry farms for which records were available (56 of the 76 poultry operations) had a violation from May 2017 through April 2019, including for improper handling of manure, missing or incomplete paperwork, and unsanitary disposal of dead birds. But despite the problems, the state imposed no penalties, records show.
“With the recent explosion of poultry farms in Accomack County, manure has been an issue of concern, not just at the poultry farm but also where it is spread on the crop fields,” said Sue Mastyl, President, Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council. “The lack of meaningful enforcement highlighted in this report, and the voluntary nature of the current system, do not provide the needed safeguards to protect our surface waters and groundwater from excess phosphorus and nitrates. As we experience heavier and more frequent rain events with climate change, this will become even more concerning.”
Overall, the Chesapeake region poultry industry produces more than one billion chickens and turkeys every year, as well as about 5.7 billion pounds of manure and about 200 million pounds of ammonia air emissions, according to EIP’s regional report.
When this air pollution – which falls out of the atmosphere to add 12 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay every year – is combined with the runoff of poultry manure spread on farm fields, the poultry industry contributes a total about 24 million pounds of nitrogen to the estuary every year. That’s even more than the 20 million pounds annually from all the urban and suburban stormwater runoff in Virginia and Maryland combined.
Although the meat chicken (or “broiler”) industry only grew by about 4 percent in Virginia between 2007 and 2017, the amount of manure it produced increased by 16 percent, to nearly 340 million pounds, because birds are being bred larger.
One of the hotspots of industry growth is in Accomack County, Virginia, which had 254 chicken houses on 51 farms in 2014 and 480 houses on 83 farms on January 1, 2020, with another 19 houses permitted but not yet built, according to county reports cited in EIP’s Accomack County report.
The poultry industry’s growth – and infrequent penalties of environmental penalties by the state – is contributing to unsafe bacteria levels in some local streams and rivers on the Eastern Shore. Twenty-two percent of monitoring locations tested by the state over the last four years (17 of 76) on the shore were contaminated with E. coli at concentrations above state standards for safe swimming or water contact recreation, and 21 percent (15 of 71) with enterococcus, state records show.
To solve the environmental and public health problems detailed in the reports, EIP recommends the following actions to better control pollution from the poultry industry:
- Virginia should increase its enforcement and penalties for pollution violations from industrial-scale poultry operations, which are seldom financially penalized for violations today.
- The poultry industry should contribute funding to help pay for the transport of excess chicken litter out of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
- States and the EPA should require poultry houses to install effective air pollution control systems, including filters to capture particulate matter being blown by poultry house exhaust fans out into the community.
- Poultry companies should pay for the planting of more trees and forested areas around chicken houses, to protect neighbors and to help catch and reduce ammonia emissions.
- Because the Chesapeake Bay region states are already struggling with the overproduction of manure, lawmakers should impose limits on the approval of new permits for large animal feeding operations, especially in areas that produce more manure than crops can use.
The Environmental Integrity Project is an 18-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and improving policy to protect public health and the environment.
Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, firstname.lastname@example.org or (443) 510-2574
Sue Mastyl, Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council, email@example.com or (610) 955-8049