BERLIN – The Waterkeeper Alliance has filed suit this week against the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), seeking access to nutrient management plans for poultry operations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes Worcester County west of Rt. 113.
MDA officials have twice denied requests from the Waterkeeper Alliance for access to the nutrient management plans, citing concerns over the privacy of the farmers’ who filed the documents.
“We’re not going after individuals, we’re going after the process itself,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. “They don’t have to give us the identity [of the farmer]. We know that already. We just want to know about the plan.”
Nutrient management plans detail how much chicken manure a poultry farm produces, and how that manure will be disposed of. Agricultural run-off from chicken waste is a major pollutant of the struggling Chesapeake Bay.
“I visited the Eastern Shore this fall and spoke with farmers about how Maryland has manufactured an illegal curtain of state secrecy to protect its biggest corporate polluters,” said Waterkeeper Alliance chair Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. “It’s time legislators put the health of Maryland citizens and the Chesapeake Bay over the interests of Big Poultry corporate lobbyists.”
Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., an industry trade organization, was not available for comment, but he told the Waterkeeper Alliance Poultry Summit, held in November, that he supports keeping the plans private. The data would not help water quality, he said in a speech at that meeting.
One local chicken farmer does not see why the plans are kept secret. County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who raises chickens, said the only personal information on the plan form, aside from name and address, could be the crop yields from the previous year. That could allow the public to figure out some of a farmer’s income. “You have some people who do not like their yields as public information,” Shockley said.
The nine Maryland Waterkeeper programs that have brought the lawsuit simply want access to public records. That information could be used to help farmers, Phillips said, who might be getting inadequate grant funding for sheds to contain the chicken waste.
“I’m sure most of the farmers follow the letter of the law and some go above and beyond,” said Phillips, but, she added, “I’ve also seen in both aerial patrols and driving around, where the manure sheds are full and the manure is piled along the edges of the farm right on the drainage ditch.”
Maryland needs to come into line with the rest of the country, she feels.
“The lobbysists for the Eastern Shore poultry growers have got control,” said Phillips. “For years, and years, and years, legislators have just been hearing from one side and it’s time to hear from the other side.”