One frigid evening this winter, 170 people crowded into a high school auditorium in Onley, a small town on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore. They didn’t come to see a student theater production or watch a basketball game between rival schools — but to talk about chickens. Many came to ply state regulators with concerns about local water quality and their health amid the poultry industry’s rapid growth on their stretch of the Delmarva Peninsula.
“We are realists and understand that many people on the Shore depend on the poultry industry for much-needed employment,” Belle Haven resident Norman Colpitts said at the start of the Jan. 30 public hearing at Nandua High School. “You folks, in part, hold the power to require these massive poultry companies to do business in such a way that their profit does not come at the cost of our environment.”
But even as residents, regulators and farmers hashed over the bureaucratic details, the session exposed the growing tension in the community over the area’s exploding poultry population.
Accomack is home to two sprawling plants that slaughter and package the chickens grown at nearby farms under contracts with Tyson Foods Inc. and Perdue Farms. Just across the Maryland border is a third processing plant run by Mountaire Farms. The squat, metal-roofed buildings where those birds are raised have proliferated across a landscape otherwise dominated by fields of soybeans, corn and wheat, much of it cultivated to feed the chickens.
Fueled largely by the expansion of Tyson’s processing facility in Temperanceville, Accomack County is on pace to nearly double the number of chicken houses within its borders in the coming years, with permit applications submitted for 273 new structures as of August, according to county documents.
The industry’s growth across the county had begun to feel inevitable, with Accomack’s weaker zoning regulations, compared with neighboring Northampton County, leaving little resistance. Then, last summer, the Virginia State Water Control Board, a citizen body appointed by the governor, rejected the fines state regulators had levied against the Tyson plant to discourage a history of ongoing pollution, saying they weren’t strong enough. That action has emboldened residents to continue pressuring state regulators to exercise stricter oversight of other aspects of chicken production.
The hundreds of farms that raise birds for those plants are already required by state permits to take steps intended to minimize pollution, such as storing manure in covered sheds or planting hedges between the farms and waterways. But, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspected several poultry operations in the county in 2010, federal officials found three farms doing little to prevent polluted runoff from leaving their sites and ordered the DEQ to issue them federal permits, which are ostensibly stricter.
The permits drafted by the DEQ for those farms would be the first of their kind for poultry houses in the state. Environmentalists say they are proof that poorly managed poultry houses can pollute nearby waterways. They also see the permits as a toehold to increase state oversight of the entire industry, but want them made more stringent.
“We’re concerned about this quickly expanding industry on the Eastern Shore, and I am concerned that this permit is not in-depth enough to create a meaningful baseline,” said Onancock resident Miriam Riggs.
The new permits require the three farms to conduct quarterly “visual monitoring” of the discharge that leaves the farm when it rains and to record what the stormwater looks like (including its color, odor and whether solids are present).
Virginia Shorekeeper Jay Ford, who along with concerned residents had petitioned for the hearing, said the permits, as drafted by the DEQ, do little more than add paperwork and require the farms to do “self-monitoring,” which he considered inadequate.
“It’s ‘look at a cup of water and see if it smells,’ ” Ford said before the hearing. “What we have doesn’t match the spirit of the (EPA’s) administrative order that made clear they thought these sites were violating the Clean Water Act.”
Critics say the permits should require the farms to measure nutrient pollution levels, as well as bacteria counts indicating the presence of raw poultry waste, in water samples taken from ditches or streams on their properties.
Industry representatives and farmers, on the other hand, contend the draft permits are onerous and could undermine a pillar of the region’s economy.
“You’ll need to be careful,” Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., the peninsula’s trade association, told DEQ representatives. “Because what you do here could set a precedent — good or bad — for future farms.”
After listening to a couple dozen residents suggesting that poultry farms are polluting their air, groundwater and the Chesapeake Bay, a handful of farmers took to the microphone to defend themselves, saying that any runoff problems stem from older, hard-to-maintain facilities. The newer operations they are building — though larger — come with better pollution-preventing technology, they said, such as in-house manure composting.
“I’m your face to one of the farms that was up there,” said Ryan Brady, whose Brady Farm in Atlantic, VA, is one of the three operations in line for the new permits. “I’m not a factory; I’m just a family farm operator. I am on both sides of the old and new, and, as Brady Farms gets older, we will be retiring those houses.”
Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, said that he thinks the new permits go further than necessary to address pollution; the existing agricultural permits already “contain all the essential ingredients for regulating these farms,” he said at the hearing.
Environmentalists disagreed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation argued in a statement submitted at the hearing that meaningful water quality monitoring must be a part of the permits, which it said will set a precedent for this growing sector of agriculture. Virginia poultry operations produced 28 million more birds in 2016 than in 2010, and the weight of those birds increased 27 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Poultry production is increasing rapidly, and this growth represents a threat to the Bay’s recovery,” Tanner Council, CBF’s grassroots manager, said at the hearing. “It is critical that these (permits) provide monitoring requirements and that these facilities will not impact water quality.”
Activists and residents also voiced concern about the amount of ammonia that chicken houses emit. The naturally occurring moisture in chicken waste produces ammonia, which is blown by ventilation fans out of the houses. Neighbors complain of the odor and the potential health impact, as ammonia can irritate the nose, throat and respiratory tract. Airborne ammonia also can impact water quality. It eventually settles out of the air onto the ground, and the nitrogen in it washes into waterways, feeding algae blooms.
The EPA has been studying ammonia emissions from farm animal operations for years, but has yet to decide whether to regulate them. In Maryland, lawmakers responding to concerns voiced on that state’s Eastern Shore are weighing legislation that would require the state’s Department of the Environment to conduct its own study of whether regulation is warranted.
The EPA, in one of the administrative orders it issued to the violating Accomack poultry operations, said that allowing particles of dust, feathers and manure to settle on the ground and be washed into local waters amounts to a discharge of water pollutants. But none of the new permits drafted by the DEQ for the three farms mentions air emissions.
“The notion that these releases are not having an impact on our waters is absurd on its face,” Ford said. “The one area where airborne nitrogen deposition is increasing is from poultry operations.”
Roughly a third of the nitrogen causing water quality problems in the Bay comes from the air, according to the EPA. Ammonia emissions from livestock and poultry operations account for about half of that airborne nitrogen.
The Clean Water Act only regulates discharges from so-called “point-sources,” such as wastewater treatment plants and factories, while exempting most sources of runoff, including those from farms. But the EPA has decided that farms raising large numbers of birds or livestock qualify as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” which can be required to get permits aimed at minimizing any potential discharges of waste.
Most Accomack residents who spoke at the hearing voiced some support for the poultry industry, a major employer on the Eastern Shore. But others pointed out that chickens aren’t the only thing produced there, and if that industry goes unregulated, it could hurt those other businesses.
Dave and Lee-Ann Fick, owners of Nandua Oyster Co. off Nandua Creek in Hacksneck, said a new 24-house chicken farm upstream from their oyster-growing grounds presents a threat to the water quality on which their aquaculture operation relies.
The small company raises oysters in submerged cages, and its waters and products are regularly tested to ensure they are free from bacteria that could be harmful to human health, such as fecal coliform. Regulators can shut down their operations if water quality standards are not met.
“We have to test our waters, and we are tiny compared to any of these operations,” Dave Fick said. “Why should they be any different?”