Maryland residents have long raised concerns about the potential health impacts of emissions from poultry houses on the Eastern Shore. Now, as the state Department of the Environment launches an industry-supported air monitoring plan, there’s debate about whether that plan can deliver quality results.Supporters of the Maryland Community Healthy Air Act demonstrate outside state legislative offices in Annapolis. They include (left to right) Monica Brooks and Gabby Ross of Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs; Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips; Leila Borrero-Krouse of CATA; chicken grower Carole Morison and Lisa Inzerillo of the Backbone Corridor Neighborhood Association. (Courtesy of Assateague Coastal Trust)

Some residents and environmental groups are proposing a different approach, now moving its way through the Maryland General Assembly for the third year in a row.

More poultry farms populate the southeast corner of Maryland than the rest of the state combined. There are 308 active operations registered in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, compared with 234 in the rest of the state, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The world’s growing appetite for chicken has led to a nearly 10 percent increase in the number of poultry farms in the tri-county area since 2013. At the same time, the industry there has been going big — building poultry houses twice the size of those a generation earlier and packed in groups of up to a dozen, instead of two or three.

Farmers raise tens of thousands of chickens inside the long, shed-like buildings, using giant fans for ventilation. Many studies, including those financed by the poultry industry, show that those emissions contain ammonia, particulate matter and other contaminants potentially detrimental to human health.

Those emissions also threaten the health of the Chesapeake Bay. About a third of the nitrogen entering the Bay stems from air pollution, and about half of that results from ammonia releases, mostly from animal farming operations.

Whether emissions from poultry houses are also affecting people in the three Maryland counties is unclear, but it is a growing concern for health advocates. None of the state’s 24 ambient air monitors are at work there.

Grassroots activists, joined by groups such as the Maryland Environmental Health Network and Food & Water Watch, have been asking state lawmakers to help gather the data they say is needed. But the Community Healthy Air Act failed to muster its way out of committee during the last two annual legislative sessions, and there’s little indication that the third attempt will turn out differently. That doesn’t discourage supporters like Marghi Barnes.

Farmers raise chickens inside long, shed-like buildings, using large fans for ventilation. (Dave Harp)“Whether or not we win or lose doesn’t affect whether I’m willing to fight,” said Barnes, who said she and her 11-year-old son began experiencing frequent sore throats after moving a few years ago to Salisbury, the area’s largest city. She lives just down the road from one of Perdue’s processing plants. “The purpose of the study is really to get an idea of what’s coming out of the fans.”

The fight marks the latest chapter in pushback against the growing chicken industry, which is an economic driver for much of the Eastern Shore. It produced $3.4 billion in chicken products in 2017, a figure that represented a nearly 50 percent increase from a decade earlier, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry, a trade association.

But that growth has sparked conflicts with surrounding residents. Several county governments have passed sweeping zoning law changes forcing new chicken houses to be built farther away from neighboring developments and to beef up their border plantings.

Meanwhile, some residents have joined forces with environmental groups to put pressure on the state to enforce its own regulations addressing polluted stormwater runoff from poultry farms. In response, the MDE has stalled at least three projects on the Eastern Shore; in Wicomico County, a Northern Virginia family who had proposed the largest operation in the county’s history scrapped their plans amid intense local outcry.

Complaints about air quality degradation are frequently lobbed at the industry. Critics point to lung cancer statistics, which show that four of Maryland’s six highest rates are found in Eastern Shore counties. Somerset County is among them. Meanwhile, the region’s counties accounted for six of the top eight highest rates of asthma-induced emergency room visits; Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties are all in that group.

But there is little research about what happens to chicken house air contaminants after they’re expelled by the fans, experts say. That’s where the Community Health Air Act comes in, said Keeve Nachman, a food systems expert with Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The question is, ‘Are these hazards getting to people? Are they getting to people at levels that could be hazards to them?’” he said. “Let’s learn something about it. Let’s find out how much exposure there is.”

The legislation would create a Committee on Air Quality, a group of nine scientists chosen by the heads of three institutions: the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, UMD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Bloomberg School of Public Health. The bill charges them with developing an air-monitoring plan by Jan. 1, 2020.

Nachman said the spirit of the legislation is encapsulated by its mandates for public comment and third-party review.

“It’s very clear to me there’s no predetermined outcome in the plan,” he said.

The air monitoring bill has struggled to garner political support on the Eastern Shore, where it’s expected to have the greatest impact. All 12 of the bill’s sponsors are Democrats from “across the bridge” — the term used by Eastern Shore residents to describe those across the 4-mile-long Bay Bridge on the Western Shore..

To become law, the bill must be passed by both houses before the session concludes on April 8.

A week before the measure was filed, Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration and the Delmarva Poultry Industry announced a separate monitoring initiative. Under the plan, two new monitoring stations will be installed, one upwind and one downwind from poultry houses. Ammonia sensors will be added to two existing stations to provide “baseline” measures.

The DPI and the Campbell Foundation are spending $500,000 to cover the costs of the devices. MDE staff will be responsible for designing the study, collecting the data and writing a final report, officials say.

“We think it’s unique,” said MDE secretary Ben Grumbles. “Potentially, it’s the first of its kind where the state environmental agency is gathering hard data about ammonia and particulate matter, and that will provide useful information to the public.”

Environmental groups are criticizing the study, saying the industry’s involvement will put a thumb on the scales in its favor. They also question whether two stations are enough to gather the information that communities and lawmakers need.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, called the study “nothing more than another example that the Hogan administration is in the pocket of Big Ag.” She added: “Any monitoring project funded by the industry at question itself is untrustworthy and underhanded.”

Grumbles calls concerns about the study’s independence “unfounded,” saying that the industry is participating solely in funding the project’s equipment, and that MDE was responsible for collecting and interpreting the data, and would independently determine next steps. The protocol for the investigation is expected to be completed by midspring, he added.

The DPI strongly rejects any connection being drawn between chicken house emissions and illnesses in the community, said its spokesman, James Fisher. The trade group’s website points to a University of Georgia study — one of the few to tackle the subject — that found particulate matter 100 feet from ventilation fans at levels similar to ambient air.

 “We’re convinced that chicken farms don’t have a negative effect on air quality,” Fisher said. “But rather than just say trust us, we think we can do better than that.”