Maryland has withdrawn a permit for a large organic chicken farm in Cecil County after its neighbors appealed the decision, saying it would leave manure-laden runoff unchecked.The Maryland Department of the Environment has notified Zion Acres Poultry in Cecil County that more detailed information is needed about how the company will stop polluted stormwater runoff from entering groundwater and nearby streams. (Dave Harp)

The Maryland Department of the Environment notified Zion Acres Poultry in June that the permit won’t be approved without more detailed information about how the company will stop polluted stormwater runoff from entering groundwater and nearby streams.

The Cecil decision represents a rare victory for Maryland activists who oppose poultry operations that they see as too big to safely contain the farms’ air and water emissions. And it deals a blow to agribusiness companies that have sought in recent years to marry organic practices with increasingly industrialized farm footprints.

Animal manure remains a stubborn source of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. On poultry farms, manure gets tracked onto areas outside chicken houses and washed into streams with the rain; much more is scraped out of sheds and spread onto cropland as fertilizer.

Once in the Bay, the nutrients fuel algae blooms that block sunlight from underwater grass beds. When the blooms die, the bacteria that feed on them suck up oxygen, creating so-called “dead zones” where there’s almost no oxygen for fish or other marine organisms to breathe.

Galen and Crystal Horst, the owners of Zion Acres, want to build four chicken houses, raising up to 830,000 birds a year on a farm in North East, a town just off the northern banks of the Chesapeake Bay. The Horsts are under contract with Perdue, one of the largest poultry producers in the country.

The MDE approved their stormwater plan last November, but a community group, the Calvert Neighborhood Alliance, appealed the decision to the agency’s administrative law judge. Officials agreed to withdraw the permit before the case went to a hearing.

“MDE has revisited its assessment of these documents and has made the determination that further information is necessary” before the permit can be approved, wrote Hilary Miller, director of the land and materials division, in a June 22 letter.

State environmental regulators have now rejected three farm stormwater permits out of nearly 500 applications, according to department statistics.

One of the other reversals also came in June. The MDE rejected a permit for a Worcester County farm after an administrative law judge recommended the action. Officials had initially approved the eight chicken houses, giving the farmer up to two years after it went into operation to construct a required manure shed.

The Cecil case stands out because, unlike in Worcester, MDE officials acted without a judge’s urging, said Keith McKenica, one of the founders of the Calvert Neighborhood Alliance, which formed to contest the 24-acre project.

“I was shocked,” McKenica said.

A sign along Route 272 near North East, MD, signals unhappiness with the poultry industry. (Dave Harp)The Horsts didn’t return messages seeking comment for this report. But Perdue representatives said the information being sought shouldn’t delay the project for long.

“It’s more of an administrative issue,” said Steve Levitsky, vice president of sustainability. “They had some questions with the original application, so they pulled the permit to get more information.”

Added Perdue spokesman Joe Forsthoffer: “We don’t see this as any red flag situation or big change.”

Still, the pair of recent successful challenges may ratchet the Shore’s poultry battle to a new level. A confluence of factors — cheap grain prices, relatively low interest rates and rising consumer demand — has led to a wave of new chicken house construction on the Eastern Shore. The 21st-century houses are considerably larger than their 20th-century counterparts and tend to be clustered in groups of six or more, instead of the usual two or three.

Community activists, often backed by environmental groups, have struck back, pushing local governments to enact stricter development and zoning controls. That happened in the wake of the Zion Acres proposal in Cecil County. The new rules that the county council voted for in March largely mirror those put forward by the Delmarva Poultry Industry, a trade group consisting of the region’s chicken farmers and agribusiness companies.

McKenica, a member of the citizens committee that initially drafted the rules, said he found himself outnumbered by interests arrayed in favor of the industry. The final document doesn’t require new chicken buildings to be set back far enough from neighboring homes and doesn’t go far enough to protect air quality, he added.

“I told the committee you don’t have enough information to know what the decision should be,” McKenica said. “They took everything they wanted and made it the new zoning package.”

Hence his surprise with the MDE’s recall of the Zion Acres permit, which at minimum delays the construction of four chicken houses and at most adds years of bureaucratic headaches for the industry.

The state’s biggest sticking point with Zion Acres’ stormwater plan centers on one of the main features that distinguishes an organic poultry farm from a non-organic farm.

Perdue requires its contract farmers to raise organic chickens according to standards set by the Global Animal Partnership, a certification program established by Whole Foods for the meat it buys. At most non-organic farms, chickens never see the light of day, living their lives entirely under artificial lights inside a long, narrow shed. In contrast, Perdue’s organic chicken houses are festooned with hatches that allow older birds to skedaddle outdoors into a fenced pasture.

Inevitably, the chickens poop outside. Where does the manure go? How is it treated?Keith McKenica, a founder of the Calvert Neighborhood Alliance, keeps an eye on the chicken house construction visible from his backyard. (Dave Harp)

Zion Acres’ plan, as originally submitted, doesn’t answer those questions, according to the appeal filed by the Environmental Action Center on behalf of McKenica’s group. The Washington-based advocacy group also represented citizens contesting the Worcester project.

“The lack of operation-specific parameters to address the scattered manure violates the [general discharge permit] and federal requirements by failing to ensure that the zero-discharge standard is met,” wrote Environmental Action Center attorney Sarah Edwards in the appeal.

Environmentalists and farmers dispute whether the pastures next to chicken houses capture and filter nutrients on their own.

According to the Global Animal Partnership guidelines, the outdoor area must be at least the size of the adjoining chicken house. Edwards and other opponents question whether that’s enough space.

“Chickens, I’m telling you, they will tear up a piece of ground,” said Carole Morison, a former Perdue contract farmer who now raises chickens independently at her organic operation in Worcester County. She consulted with the Environmental Action Center on the Zion Acres case. “They will scratch, constantly do. It’s normal behavior. If you’ve got nothing but dirt, it’s just going to run off.”

Perdue’s Levitsky disagreed, saying there appears to be ample time for the grass to rebound in between flocks and during the weeks when the birds are too young to venture outside.

“What I’ve seen is it looks like your lawn, a nice grass cover,” he said.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson confirmed that the agency is seeking more information from Zion Acres about how it will resolve the outdoor manure problem.

“The farmer will need to submit a revised [certified nutrient management plan] with additional information to address the presence and assimilation of poultry manure in the outdoor access area next to the chicken houses, among other issues,” Apperson wrote in an email.

Zion Acres will have to resubmit the plan for the MDE’s approval and undergo another round of public comment before it is finalized, he added.

Edwards said she hopes the case leads the MDE to make industrial-scale organic farmers account for pollution in the pasture. She will be watching to make sure that the Zion Acres plan lays out what she considers meaningful steps to address the runoff.