Coordination on poultry growth lacking among Delmarva towns, states
In the past year, hundreds of new poultry operations on Delmarva have left municipalities with a big challenge: how to support the industry that drives their economies without harming the environment.
It's not an easy balance -- and across three states, many towns and counties, and at the federal level, it's happening inconsistently.
That's especially clear from Accomack County on Virginia's rural Eastern Shore, where artist Miriam Riggs resides. Her house and studio are on a bayshore road on the outskirts of the town of Onancock -- population 1,200.
Riggs makes everything from floor paintings for historic homes, to little statues, like a bronze box turtle she says she's especially proud of.
"I just like it. I like the small creatures," she says. "I like to depict the fragile wildlife … that can't speak for itself."
This is the southern end of Delmarva, where the peninsula begins to narrow to a marshy point. It's separated from the rest of the coast by the Chesapeake Bay, and dotted with hundreds of chicken growing operations supplying big companies like Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods.
More are being permitted all the time, and Riggs is worried about their impact. Last fall, she says, a manure fire broke out at one house about seven miles away.
"And so I drove by there, and there is this poultry manure shed just smoking away," she says. "It was smoking away for, it turned out, three weeks."
Riggs says local firefighters weren't equipped to handle the smolder. Tyson said it was their contracted grower's responsibility -- but the grower lived out of state, and no one could reach them.
"The county was really kind of dumbfounded, because they hadn't encountered this situation before," Riggs says. "And I think, really, they don't have any mechanism for notification or for dealing with this type of situation. It just hadn't occurred on such a scale before."
In Virginia, county officials can only do what state law empowers them to. That's true in Delaware and Maryland, too, but they give their municipalities a little more flexibility.
Accomack County administrator Steve Miner says his controls are limited to public safety -- which can mean anything from police matters to property lines.
"There's probably some authority in there at some level to prevent things from becoming a health hazard," Miner says, citing fumes from the smoldering fire as an example. "That could at some point be a state issue, it could be a local issue, it could be a shared issue."
But he says they rely on the state for most environmental controls -- which aren't that intense when it comes to agriculture. So for now, Accomack has focused on whether to widen setbacks to keep homes farther from new poultry operations.
A city analysis of setbacks and other regulations across the peninsula showed a huge range -- from very little control in Delaware, to huge setbacks in a couple of Maryland and Virginia counties.
Accomack framed its new rules as robust and progressive -- but locals like Miriam Riggs hoped it would only be the start of more management for issues like the fire, or stormwater runoff.
But at a public hearing in early February, her camp was met with a stiff rebuke from dozens of people like Phil Hickman of Horntown:
"If the poultry industry in Accomack County is not given the opportunity to expand, it disappears," he said in testimony to the board of supervisors. "And if it disappears, we all lose."
The two-hour meeting in a school lunchroom was tense at times, its 250 attendees divided over whether the county could protect its poultry-based economy as well as the rebounding aquaculture, tourism and wildlife of the Chesapeake Bay.
In the end, the county passed the new setbacks -- but didn't seem prepared to do much else. That was frustrating for Accomack native Jay Ford of the nonprofit Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper. But he recognizes it's not all the county's fault.
"It's not a problem that the localities can, or should be expected to tackle," he says. "It's unfair that the state is leaving rural localities that are understaffed for such a technical problem to try and tackle it with the limited tools they have because of right-to-farm laws."
He thinks the EPA is dragging its feet on evaluating the health and environmental impacts of big poultry operations. Without region-wide data, Ford says, there can't be much coordination.
That's clear further north in Delaware and Maryland, where local approaches also vary widely. Delaware hasn't evolved its regulations much -- it's permitting more growing operations and letting slaughterhouses expand, too.
That's angered even Republican state legislators like Steve Smyk. He represents the Sussex County district where poultry processor Allen Harim just got permission to double its plant's capacity from 875,000 birds a week to 2 million.
"I don't mind, and I can speak on behalf of my constituency -- they don't mind more jobs. They don't mind anything that's going to help out with the economy," Smyk says. "What they would like is that it's done responsibly."
He says what rules Delaware has created can be obstructive to business, and they still don't force farmers to be good neighbors. But state officials have said there's only so much they can do on agriculturally zoned land -- and the legislature doesn't seem poised to take the issue on.
Over the border in Maryland, lawmakers are considering one approach. The general assembly is weighing a bill to make poultry companies responsible for their own manure, instead of putting the cost on the taxpayers.
The nonprofit Food & Water Watch helped craft the legislation. Their justice director Michele Merkel says public health is their best angle to create change.
"At some point, I think the states have to decide that they're not going to be held hostage to threats by industries that if they can't violate our laws, they can't poison our waterways, that they'll pack up and leave," she says. "We don't allow other industries to do this, and poultry should be held to the same standard."
But that fear is still very real in many Delmarva towns. Poultry supports thousands of jobs, contributes billions to the regional economy and helps to feed the world.
It's also an industry that's modernized rapidly, and any updates to old regulations have come in patchwork. Merkel says more EPA action could help level the playing field between states. And Delaware Sen. Chris Coons doesn't disagree.
"I do think that we can do a stronger job of coordinating between towns, cities, states and the federal government and making sure we're all pulling in the same direction," he says.
Still, Coons, a Democrat who co-founded the Senate Chicken Caucus, says federal law has strengths already. He says it's important not to be too heavy-handed.
"Poultry has borne a great deal of the weight of the regulatory efforts to try to clean up the Bay over the last two decades," Coons says. "And at least on the Delaware side, my impression is from Delawareans I've met with … is that they feel we've hit the right balance. In Maryland it's been much more contentious. There's been much less cooperation and agreement between agriculture and the state."
So he says federal agencies might also be able to offer more resources to help farmers be sustainable all across the region.
But for now, the quickest route to change may be back at the local level -- in places like Onley, Virginia, where naturalist Tony Picardi is having a steak salad in a downtown Irish pub.
The retired engineer is a big proponent of the region-wide data-gathering that Jay Ford mentioned earlier. But Picardi wants states and towns to lead the charge as the number of chicken houses -- even environmentally-friendly ones -- increases.
"When is the point at which the environment can't take anymore?" he asks. "There is a cumulative impact … when you increase the number of them by a factor of ten. Then you start to have problems, and that's what is happening in Delaware and Maryland when they've gotten to be an enormous number."
At the current rate of permitting, he says Accomack County's two or three hundred poultry houses could increase to 2,000 -- even under the new setback rules.
So at February's public hearing, he volunteered to help study those effects for the county. He thought some on the Board of Supervisors wanted to make it happen -- and that, he says, is a start.