Virginia environmental officials are setting out to answer a question that has long dogged Delmarva’s poultry industry: Do industrial-size chicken farms foul streams and other waterways with polluted runoff?A truckload of chickens leaves a farm on Virginia’s Eastern en route to a nearby Tyson processing plant. (Dave Harp)

The Department of Environmental Quality has announced that, beginning in August, it will conduct a yearlong study of water quality near three poultry farms in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. Researchers plan to take samples both upstream and downstream of each farm and will inspect the water for nutrients, sediment and other contaminants.

“We’ll get a much better idea of what contributions the farm is having on water quality,” said Neil Zahradka, DEQ’s manager of land application programs.

The study comes after neighbors and environmental advocates pressured the state to require rigorous environmental monitoring as a condition of the farms’ stormwater permits. Representatives of Accomack’s $108 million poultry industry warned that such an obligation would be a burden that could cripple one of the rural region’s few money-makers.

The state didn’t tie the sampling to the permits, but most of the farms’ critics accepted the compromise. It marks the first time that specific poultry farms will be formally monitored for pollution anywhere on the peninsula, they said.

“For the first time, we’re really going to be able to say, ‘Yes, these BMPs really are working’ or ‘No, they’re not,’” said Jay Ford, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s outreach coordinator in Virginia. Ford recently joined the foundation in this new position after pushing for these reforms as the region’s shorekeeper. 

Getting farmers to create and maintain BMPs, or best-management practices, represents one of the top strategies under the federal and multistate Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. The 83,000 farm operations in the watershed are the Bay’s largest single source of nutrient and sediment pollution, researchers say.

A surge in the number of chicken houses is taking place on Virginia's Eastern Shore, including those shown here under construction along Route 13 in the fall of 2017. (Dave Harp)

Practices that can soften that pollution punch include digging bioretention ponds where stormwater can collect and planting a buffer of trees and shrubs on the edges of fields to filter runoff. Such steps are widely embraced as effective. But little is known about how well they perform on modern chicken farms, which produce far more birds and, therefore, more nutrient-laden waste than their older counterparts.

The three Accomack farms are receiving extra scrutiny because federal inspectors discovered violations of the Clean Water Act at each property in 2010.

The county, population 33,000, is home to two sprawling plants that slaughter and package the chickens grown at nearby farms under contracts with Tyson Foods Inc. and Perdue Farms. The companies are Accomack’s two largest employers.

The squat, metal-roofed buildings where those birds are housed provide some of the only structural variety in a landscape dominated by fields of soybeans, corn and wheat — much of it cultivated to feed the chickens. 

A tougher zoning ordinance approved by the county’s board of supervisors in February 2016 has done little to slow the industry’s growth.

Spurred by the expansion of Tyson’s processing facility in Temperanceville, Accomack is on pace to nearly double the number of chicken houses within its borders in the coming years, with permit applications submitted for 273 new structures as of August 2017, according to county documents. 

In 2010, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the three farms doing little to prevent polluted runoff from leaving their sites, it ordered the DEQ to issue them federal permits, which are ostensibly stricter.

Some neighbors suspect other poultry operations aren’t in compliance as well, but they admit they have no evidence to support those claims.

Jay Ford, left, talks with Mark McCready at a January 2018 permit hearing. Ford, the former Virginia Shorekeeper now with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that the permits as drafted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality do little more than add paperwork and require the farms to do “self-monitoring,” which he considered inadequate. (Whitney Pipkin)

“I don’t know if these are the only three or if there are others because we don’t do any monitoring,” said Arthur Upshur, president of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, which also pushed for the testing.

If the DEQ’s monitoring finds problems, it could open the door to a broader industry examination, he added. He said that he hopes the findings persuade state regulators to enact tighter pollution controls when its overall federal stormwater permit is reviewed in the next few years.

Critics say the poultry industry has been operating in a loophole for years that enables farmers to dodge greater federal oversight. The operations, some with as many as a dozen or more poultry houses, are regulated as concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs. Despite their size, they aren’t subject to pollution reporting and monitoring requirements the way heavy industrial complexes are.

The difference: Heavy industry is deemed a “point source” of pollution — with contaminants flowing through smokestacks and drainage pipes — while agriculture isn’t. A federal court upheld that regulatory tradition in 2013 in a case involving runoff at a West Virginia poultry farm in the Chesapeake watershed.

In Maryland’s last two state legislative sessions, activists have fallen short in their efforts to pass a law mandating air emissions tests on the Eastern Shore. They charge that the ammonia blowing out of the houses’ huge fans is a detriment to nearby residents’ health.

In Accomack, the DEQ proposed that the three farms' operators conduct their own “visual monitoring” tests: taking stock of their runoffs’ color, odor and amount of solids each time it rains. When Ford and other detractors learned that would be the only failsafe at the farms, they turned out by the dozen at a DEQ hearing in January.

“I’m your face to one of the farms that was up there,” Ryan Brady told the audience at a January 2018 permit hearing. His Brady Farm in Atlantic, VA, is one of the operations that received a permit and will be included state water quality monitoring plans. Brady said he supports the research and has already taken several steps to clean up stormwater runoff at his farm. (Whitney Pipkin)At a Virginia State Water Control Board in April, regulators signed off on the permits — the first ever issued for individual poultry farms. The board required visual monitoring. But outside the bounds of the permit, DEQ officials said they would be studying nearby waters themselves and share the results with the public.

“We were pleasantly surprised the state was very responsive to our questions,” Ford said. “When we have major storm events, we know water is leaving the sites, but we have no data anywhere on Delmarva to know what is leaving.”

The poultry industry is changing and regulators need to change their protocols to keep pace, he added.

”Our permits were written for a different size industry,” Ford said. “I think our regulators are doing the best they can to keep up with an industry that is growing.”

The ordeal demonstrates that farmers are responsive to environmental concerns and take swift action when problems are found, said James Fisher, a spokesman for the trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry.

“The situation that EPA found was fixed, and then all three farms went further and applied for — and this April obtained — these permits that the EPA said farms that discharge have to have,” he said. “That’s one more sign of how seriously growers and the chicken community take water quality.”

At the Brady Farm, one of the three that received the new permits, owner Ryan Brady said he has taken several steps to clean up runoff, including planting tree buffers, treating poultry manure and installing channels that drain into a new $400,000 pond.

He told those gathered at the January hearing, though, that he supports research into how much pollution CAFOs discharge.

“We need to make sure we’re doing the right thing and taking the right steps before we put these permits into place,” Brady said.