Proposed regulations to make Maryland’s poultry processors responsible for helping their growers dispose of excess chicken waste drew fiery opposition from hundreds of farmers in late January and early February.

The state announced in December that it planned to issue five-year “co-permits” that would require the three main Eastern Shore poultry processors — Allen Family Foods, Perdue Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. — to share responsibility with their contract growers for the proper handling and disposal of chicken waste.

Under the permits, processors will be required to provide growers with the “technology and assistance” they need to dispose of the litter. If that doesn’t happen, the processing plants could risk losing their wastewater discharge permits.

It’s the first time a state has tied a company’s discharge permit to the actions of the growers it contracts with, and the action has received attention — and concern —from the agricultural community across the country.

“These new permits strengthen our commitment to protect Maryland’s natural resources and will help us meet the ambitious goals of the Chesapeake Bay 2000 agreement,” Gov. Parris Glendening said in announcing the permit requirements.

“This new tool will also aid Maryland’s poultry farming families by requiring poultry processors to share the responsibility for protecting Maryland’s waterways and the Bay,” Glendening said.

The state contends that the permits “recognize the unique aspects” of the poultry industry, which places contract growers under the “substantial control” of the poultry companies that own the chickens.

The multibillion dollar poultry industry on Maryland’s Eastern Shore raises more than 300 million chickens annually, which produce about 700 million pounds of manure, much of which is spread on farm fields as fertilizer.

Many chicken farmers don’t have enough cropland to use poultry manure as fertilizer without overapplying it and causing polluted runoff.

Chicken waste used as fertilizer has been blamed for fouling local streams and is considered to be a major source of the nutrients that enter the Bay from the Eastern Shore.

Excess amounts of nutrients fuel algae blooms which block sunlight to important beds of underwater grasses. When the algae die, they decompose in a process that robs the water of oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic life. Excess nutrients have also been blamed for contributing to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida.

But the permits have been widely criticized by the poultry processors, farmers and agricultural organizations.

“It’s a very flawed idea,” said Tyson Foods spokesman John Copeland. “The only way we can guarantee (against violations) is if we take control … Some growers, quite frankly, are going to lose their contracts.”

Independent growers, too, have joined the big chicken companies in arguing that the new rules will suffocate the industry.

Growers and poultry industry executives jammed the floor of a Berlin school auditorium during a January hearing to question officers of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“We have 300 years of uninterrupted history of commercial agriculture in Caroline County, and that’s being threatened,” said County Commissioner John Cole.

Many said they want Maryland to adopt oversight closer to that of neighboring Delaware, which signed a memorandum of understanding in January with five poultry processing companies for voluntary efforts to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.

“All we’re looking for is the ability to discipline ourselves,” said Frank Thomas, a chicken grower from Princess Anne.

The Maryland Farm Bureau called the proposed permits illegal, saying the state had no authority to regulate “nonpoint” farm runoff in a discharge permit issued to an industry — in this case, a poultry processor. “The federal Clean Water Act specifically prohibits the management of nonpoint source activities by federal permit,” it said.

Chicken farmers, who claim the requirements would force many of them out of business, have mailed hundreds of form protest letters to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Environmentalists have supported the program. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has matched the farm effort by placing a form letter supporting the regulations on its web site, offering to “fax it free” to the MDE for site visitors.

Its letter says the proposed requirements will “hold those who contribute to the problem accountable” and ensure that small farmers would “not be alone in meeting the requirements” of the water quality act.