Five major poultry companies signed an agreement with Delaware officials in January to voluntarily reduce manure runoff linked to pollution in the state’s inland waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

The “memorandum of understanding,” which was immediately criticized by one environmental group, is a sharp contrast to the regulations in Maryland that require poultry processors to share responsibility and manure disposal costs with poultry growers working under contract with the companies.

In contrast, the Delaware pact calls on poultry processors to provide the independent chicken growers with “technical assistance” — in other words, advice — on getting rid of the litter that is scraped from the floors of chicken houses.

“We think financial liability is the way to get these company’s attention, not voluntary agreements,” said Ed Hopkins, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.

There are more than 6,000 chicken houses on the Delmarva Peninsula, capable of raising as many as 25,000 birds each. The birds create as much as 800,000 tons of litter — a mix of sawdust and manure — annually.

Traditionally, much of the chicken waste has been spread on farm fields. Nitrogen and phosphorus are natural fertilizers for row crops, but when excess waste is spread, rain can carry those nutrients into waterways.

Besides Perdue, the companies that signed the deal include Allen Family Foods Inc., Mountaire Farms of Delmarva Inc., Mountaire Farms of Delaware Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc.

Executives for the poultry companies defended the voluntary approach.

“This is a trust-building process,” said Jim Perdue, president of Perdue Farms Inc., which is headquartered in Salisbury, MD. “What I abhor is the approach that was taken in Maryland, with no trust of the farmer, no trust of the industry.”

Perdue singled out his company’s $12 million project to build a fertilizer plant, which will turn manure into pellets that can be easily shipped, as an example of how the industry is responsibly dealing with excess chicken waste.

States are under pressure by the EPA to more tightly regulate livestock waste and meet standards set by the federal Clean Water Act.

If Delaware failed to meet the EPA goals in two years, the federal agency could force the state to adopt a system of national permits that is much more strict, said Nicholas DiPasquale, secretary of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“This (agreement) does not pre-empt federal requirements,” DiPasquale said. “What we hope to show is that we are getting results done through an alternative to the federal permit.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who was in office as Delaware’s governor when negotiations began between a state-appointed panel and the poultry industry over new manure-handling regulations, said the cooperative effort between the state and the poultry industry is unique to Delaware.

“If what we’re doing here in Delaware proves to be successful as early signs seem to suggest, let’s put a spotlight on it and replicate it elsewhere in America,” Carper said.

Environmentalists, though, fear that the result of the agreement may be to allow livestock producers to circumvent Clean Water Act standards in Delaware — possibly making the state a magnet for pollution-producing industries.

“Congress in 1972 specifically said they wanted uniform national regulation of pollution,” Hopkins said. “That was the point of passing a national law.”