The poultry industry’s growing footprint on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is getting new scrutiny from regulators and activists after a head-turning decision by a state regulatory body to demand harsher punishment for pollution violations at a chicken-processing plant.
The Virginia State Water Control Board, a citizen body appointed by the governor, this summer rejected state regulators’ recommended fines against a Tyson Foods facility that’s a hub for a growing number of chicken houses in Accomack County.
By a vote of 4 to 1, the board decided in July that a $26,160 fine proposed by the Department of Environmental Quality was insufficient, given the history of violations at the plant. The board’s rare rejection of a consent order negotiated by the DEQ to settle a pollution violation heartened activists, who fear the poultry industry’s expansion on their narrow, low-lying stretch of the Delmarva Peninsula puts the Chesapeake Bay and their quality of life at risk.
Accomack County, one of two counties making up Virginia’s portion of the Shore, is on pace to nearly double the number of chicken houses within its borders in the coming years, with 273 new houses in the permit process as of early August, according to documents obtained by Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper Jay Ford through a Freedom of Information Act request.
With more chickens comes more manure, a field-fertilizing resource that can become a phosphorous-rich pollutant when it washes off sandy farm soils and into streams running to the Bay or Atlantic Ocean.
Most of the new houses in Accomack would be growing chickens — up to 250,000 per year apiece — for Tyson Foods Inc., which runs the sprawling hatchery and processing facility in Temperanceville that was cited three times in 2015 alone for discharging more nutrients than its permit allows into Pocomoke Sound and the Bay.
Nationally, Tyson ranks as the second largest discharger of pollutants, mainly nutrients, into U.S. waterways according to Environment America’s analysis of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory.
As the largest chicken company in the United States, the Arkansas-based Tyson Foods is a major employer in the rural communities where its processing plants and contract growers are located. But the economic benefit of Tyson’s presence is tarnished in some eyes by concerns about the environmental impacts of a concentrated, industrial approach to animal production.
In September, Ford invited a group of stakeholders, including a member of the state water control board, and a representative of a shareholder responsibility group to Accomack County to see firsthand how quickly the chicken industry is growing and what that might mean for local water quality and ways of life.
Over lunch at the Island House Restaurant in Wachapreague, Ford explained that, even as new chicken houses are going up alongside thoroughfares and rural residences, local residents and researchers still have a lot of unanswered questions: How much manure do these facilities produce in total, and is it all being spread on fields in Accomack County? How much manure is too much for a stream’s watershed to handle before it becomes degraded? And does a high concentration of water-intensive facilities drawing from local groundwater affect the long-term viability of an aquifer?
“I think the theme, in case you haven’t noticed it yet, is we don’t have the answers on almost anything, yet we’re building all of these” chicken houses, Ford told the group.
Poultry operations that confine more than 20,000 chickens are required to get a Virginia Pollution Abatement permit and to track how they manage or remove poultry waste. But that information is not aggregated or provided to the public on a watershed basis.
Roberta Kellam is a member of the state water control board who lives in neighboring Northampton County, which, because of stricter zoning regulations, does not have the growing poultry industry of its neighboring county. She said during the luncheon that she doesn’t have all the information she’d like to have to make state-level decisions about how this industry is impacting water quality.
“I can look at a map of the Eastern Shore and say, ‘It’s awfully tiny and it’s surrounded by water and where are you going to put all that manure?” Kellam said. “But, when it comes to getting the hard data, it seems to me like we’re not really getting good numbers on where the manure is going.”
The U.S. Geological Survey noted in a 2015 report that lands on the Eastern Shore contribute a disproportionate share of nutrients to the Bay. Nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations in Eastern Shore streams were commonly high enough to threaten aquatic life, with 90 percent of those nutrients coming from agriculture.
Decisions about whether to permit a new batch of chicken houses are made at the local level, by boards and departments who often have even fewer resources to weigh the environmental impact of potential projects.
Mary Beth Gallagher, executive director of the New Jersey-based Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, expressed dismay that state and local boards didn’t have a good handle of how much manure existing facilities are generating — and how much the landscape can safely absorb — before deciding whether the county should welcome new ones.
Gallagher’s organization represents faith-based and environmentally minded investors who want to leverage their influence as shareholders to improve company practices on a suite of issues, from social justice to environmental sustainability. This wasn’t her first tour of parts of the country where meat production was leaving a larger-than-desired footprint on local communities, but there was still plenty that surprised and concerned her about the rapid growth in this southern portion of the Delmarva Peninsula.
The coalition has for the last two years presented a resolution at Tyson Foods’ annual shareholder meeting that critiques the company’s current approach to water quality, citing a history of water contamination at Tyson-owned plants and urging its leadership to implement a water stewardship policy for all company-owned and contracted facilities.
“As investors, we’re worried about the investment risk associated with poor management as well as the reputational risk,” Gallagher said over the phone after visiting the Eastern Shore. “It looks bad when the company is polluting local waterways and not taking the necessary steps to prevent future negative situations.”
That resolution — which states that Tyson should apply the same rigor to protecting water resources along its supply chain that it does to nearly every other aspect of animal production — will be presented again for a vote at the company’s annual meeting in February. The measure has been voted down each time, but has garnered a greater proportion of the vote each year, last year earning the approval of more than half of the shareholders who are not in the Tyson family, which owns 72 percent of shares.
Gallagher said she’d consider the effort a moral victory even if the resolution never passes (with a majority of shareholder votes), just for having it debated.
Tyson Foods’ growing presence in Accomack County came to Gallagher’s attention because of the water control board’s decision — which adds fodder to her organization’s argument that the company is putting itself at economic risk by continuing to pollute.
Despite having signed a consent order with the DEQ in 2011 for previous violations that entailed paying fines and presenting a plan for compliance, Tyson’s Temperanceville plant again discharged more polluted wastewater than its permit allows into a local creek to the Bay’s Pocomoke Sound in March, August and September of 2015. The plant exceeded limits for ammonia on two occasions and limits for fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria, among other pollutants, in the other instances.
The DEQ’s order stated that the facility’s pollution “substantially contributes to the impaired water quality of its receiving streams and hinders the goal of the Chesapeake Bay…to meet water quality standards.”
Ford argued at hearings on the DEQ’s proposed consent order with Tyson that it would cost the company less to pay the fine levied and continue to regularly pollute the waterways than to pay for the maintenance necessary to prevent the discharges.
“Thus,” Ford wrote in a letter to state regulators, “a pattern of pollution, followed by a slap on the wrist, has developed and will likely continue to do so under the proposed order.”
The board’s rejection of the consent order in July sends it back to the DEQ to determine a new agreement, one that could potentially include higher fines for the facility. A new order is not likely to come back to the board for a vote until December at the earliest.
In response to questions about Tyson’s efforts to improve water quality at its owned and contracted facilities, Tyson Foods spokesman Worth Sparkman distanced the corporation from the actions of individual contract growers.
“You should know that chickens are grown by independent farmers on their own land,” Sparkman wrote in an email. “We don’t manage the operation or the clean out of those farms and therefore don’t have specifics about the volume of litter removed from those farms…Under our contracts, farmers are required to comply with all applicable environmental regulations.”
Sparkman continued, in response to questions about how much manure is produced by poultry growers and whether the company is considering alternatives to land application, “Our approach to sustainability is to drive improvement across the entire value chain instead of focusing on single issues that sometimes come with trade-offs to other areas of the supply chain.”
After hiring a chief sustainability officer in April, Tyson is now collaborating with the World Resources Institute to develop targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve water throughout its supply chain. Sparkman said Tyson has not yet released specific targets for those efforts.
The coalition’s resolution, though, points out that water use is just one of the issues raised by the growth of the poultry industry in rural areas.
In response to residents’ concerns, Accomack County passed new zoning rules last year that include limiting the number of new poultry houses per parcel to 12. Opponents argue that “parcel” is not clearly defined. Later that same year, for example, a grower skirted that limit by proposing 24 houses on two adjacent parcels, creating a sprawling poultry campus that’s still under construction.
Heather Lusk, marketing director for HM Terry Co., which grows oysters and clams south of that facility on the Shore’s seaside, said she’s concerned that a proliferation of poultry houses could impact aquaculture businesses downstream. Willis Wharf, where her family’s business is based, is also home to hatcheries that fuel the rest of Virginia’s burgeoning aquaculture industry.
“We’ve been growing clams and oysters side by side with traditional farmers for a long time now and have been able to work together,” Lusk said. “But anytime there’s a situation where water quality can be affected, our ears perk up and we like to pay attention.”
In September, Tyson pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act after a spill at one of its processing facilities in Missouri caused a massive fish kill. As part of the plea agreement, Tyson is hiring a third-party auditor to examine all company poultry facilities and assess their compliance with the Clean Water Act — a change Ford hopes could eventually lead to changes at the Temperanceville facility.
Meanwhile, he is working toward the formation of a state legislative committee to study the meat industry’s rapid growth and its impact on both people and the environment.
“The legislative approach to this industry has really gotten away from protecting citizens,” Ford said. “The obligation should be on businesses to demonstrate that they will not pollute, not for us to catch them.”
Kellam, the water control board member, said she’d like to have more information about the chicken industry’s environmental footprint at her fingertips by 2020, when the board is scheduled to revisit the rules for general discharge permits, which cover many poultry facilities.
“What information is needed to make a rational and science-based determination as to whether (a waterway) will get degraded from what we’re doing?” Kellam asked. “I’m not an expert, but I do get recommendations from experts, and I’m not really hearing any good answers on that end either.”