Politics of the Plate: So Now Who’s the Chicken?

For the first time, the EPA is going to enforce federal pollution regulations governing chicken manure—and agribusiness interests don’t seem happy about it.

Agribusiness interests and factory farmers in Maryland seem surprised and angry that the EPA has decided to do something it typically avoids at all costs: enforce its own rules.

For the first time, the agency is going to clamp down on federal pollution regulations governing chicken manure, according to Timothy B. Weaver of the Baltimore Sun. The state’s 800 poultry farms must now obtain pollution-discharge permits if manure from their birds washes into waterways.

And quite a bit does. The Chesapeake Bay is a notoriously polluted body of water; according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group, the number one culprit is big agriculture, particularly chicken farms. On the state’s Eastern Shore, chickens outnumber humans 1,000 to one, and agricultural waste accounts for 40 percent of the nitrogen and 50 percent of the phosphorus polluting the bay. In Virginia, which also borders the Chesapeake, chickens produce four times more nitrogen and 24 times more phosphorus than hogs.

Nitrogen and phosphorus create conditions that lead to algae blooms. Decomposing algae takes oxygen out of the water, creating murky “dead zones” where fish and crustaceans can’t survive.

The EPA rules stipulate that poultry manure can only sit on open fields for 14 days before being tilled into the ground. Maryland state rules allow for 90 days. Similarly, federal standards call for 35-foot manure-free buffer zones around ditches and streams; the state allowed for ten-foot buffers.

“It’s nothing more than a lot of red tape,” David Wood, a chicken farmer who tends a 435,000-bird flock, told the Sun.

That’s one point of view. Scott Edwards, legal director of the Waterkeeper Alliance offered another: “It’s a no-brainer.”

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