Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in January proposed new permitting requirements that would apply to about 200 large Eastern Shore poultry farms and allow regulators to inspect chicken houses and collect water samples from nearby streams.
Pollution control permits are already required for large dairy and hog farms, but poultry was exempted when the regulations were written more than a decade ago even though the industry is larger. Maryland proposed similar permits under former Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2004, but the proposal was dropped after farmers complained it was too burdensome.
The regulations would require a state permit for any chicken farm with more than 125,000 birds or poultry houses larger than 75,000 square feet. Under those criteria, about 200 of the state's 862 poultry farms would require the permits, which would cost farmers about $120 a year in fees.
Permitted farms would have to allow state environmental inspectors onto their land to sample for pollution, take photographs and check manure management records. Annual reports would also have to be submitted to the state, declaring the numbers of animals, manure produced and how it was disposed of.
Manure would have to be kept more than 100 feet from streams, and a 25-foot-wide filter strip of vegetation along streams and ditches would also be required.
The Department of the Environment is taking comments from the public on the proposal and will issue final regulations March 31. The regulations will take effect within 120 days after that, officials said.
Robert Summers, deputy environment secretary, said regularly scheduled inspections are not required under the proposal. Summers said his agency has 35 water pollution inspectors, who must also monitor sewage treatment plants, construction sites, wetlands and other locations.
"We do not have an adequate number of inspectors to do all the inspections we'd like to do," Summers said. "So we are going to prioritize our inspections to only those that have the highest environmental and public health risks."
The state passed a law requiring most farms to have nutrient management plans after an outbreak of the toxic algae pfiesteria on the Pocomoke River in 1997. But that law does not require farms to limit runoff; it only makes recommendations and any monitoring is conducted by the state agriculture department, not environmental regulators.
State agriculture officials said in a briefing that the permit plan is needed to assure the public that chicken farms are doing all they can to reduce pollution. Scientists say excess phosphorus and nitrogen created by poultry farming are major pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're trying to create a level of confidence in the public sector that farmers are doing the right thing, as they are," said Buddy Hance, an assistant secretary in the Department of Agriculture.
But some lawmakers complained to Hance that they have reservations about how the pollution permitting would work. A major objection was a plan for the Department of the Environment to check the farms, not agriculture officials.
"The Maryland Department of Agriculture ought to be in the lead," said Del. Norman Conway, D-Wicomico. After Hance said that agriculture was glad to be allowed a say in the poultry permitting, Conway said, "I don't want them to allow us anything. We need to be allowing them."
Other lawmakers voiced support. "I think it's greatly needed. ...Chickens have been one of the major problems for water quality in the Bay," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of a Senate environment subcommittee. "There has been a lot of fear from the agricultural community about this and a lot of resistance."
Michele Merkel, Chesapeake regional coordinator for the Waterkeepers Alliance, an environmental group, said that three years ago federal law required the state to begin policing water pollution caused by chicken farms.
She noted that the proposed regulations don't go far enough because they allow the state to decide whether to inspect poultry houses and monitor streams and underground water supplies. The permits could prohibit any runoff of manure into streams, but don't, Merkel said.
"I don't think it's aggressive at all. It doesn't go far enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and it reflects that the MDE isn't serious about regulating confined animal feeding operations," said Merkel, a former attorney for the EPA.
Julie De Young, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-based Perdue Farms, the third-largest chicken company in the United States, said the permits proposal is less burdensome than some federal industrial-style discharge permits.
The spokeswoman said the company will not have any problem complying "as long as it's not overly onerous from an administrative or financial standpoint."