Two environmental groups are suing Perdue and one of its contract farms for discharging pollution into a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

The national Waterkeeper Alliance and the Assateague Coastkeeper filed the lawsuit March 2 in the federal district court of Maryland. The lawsuit alleges that Hudson Farms, a contract grower for Perdue in Berlin, MD, left a pile of waste out in the open, where it ran into a ditch that led straight to a branch of the Pocomoke River, contaminating it and the Chesapeake Bay.

In October, the waterkeeper group, which is part of the Riverkeeper Alliance that Robert Kennedy founded, conducted a flyover of the Eastern Shore to look for problem spots. Members of the group spotted the Hudson farm, which had several piles of what appeared to be chicken manure next to drainage ditches that fed into waterways.

The group took samples of the waste downstream and found high levels of fecal coliform and E.coli bacteria, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic and ammonia. Many of those are commonly found in chicken houses.

The farm, which is owned by Kristin and Alan Hudson, raises 80,000 birds a year for Perdue. It is considered a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

On Dec. 18, the waterkeepers notified the Maryland Department of the Environment of their intent to sue Hudson and Perdue. A couple of days later, MDE inspectors arrived at the farm to conduct water tests. The department concluded that the pile was not chicken manure, but instead treated human sludge from an Ocean City wastewater plant. It ordered the farmer to move the pile from the ditch, cover it and put straw bales around it.

A few days later, it was revealed that MDE inspectors didn't actually conduct any tests during their visit. The farmers wouldn't let them, according to agency spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. She called the situation a miscommunication, fueled in part by a lack of staff to answer questions around the Christmas holidays.

"We had to get our attorneys involved and raise the possibility of a search warrant," Stoltzfus said.

Inspectors finally tested the property Jan. 27-more than a month after learning of the violation. Throughout February and March, Stoltzfus said, the MDE continued to investigate the farm for ongoing violations, with the help of the state attorney general's office.

On March 26, the agency announced it was issuing an administrative complaint against the farm for improperly storing sludge. It fined Hudson $4,000. But, the department also said they could not conclusively link the elevated levels of bacteria to the sludge. The high levels could have come from other sources, according to the department.

That's not satisfactory to the waterkeepers, who argue the inspectors compromised evidence when they moved the pile and took too long to follow their own laws. The riverkeepers, who have previously taken legal action against the MDE for having what they consider weak enforcement, filed a petition with the EPA asking the federal agency to strip the MDE of its authority to enforce the Clean Water Act.

"There's pollution pouring off that farm. It is polluting local waterways, and that is really the basis of this case," said Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for the Waterkeeper Alliance. "There's no mystery here as to what's happening to the Bay. You've got basically an open toilet where waste after waste after waste is just being dumped on the ground. They don't need more studies or more legislation. They need enforcement of the Clean Water Act and to stop giving a free ride to some of the biggest polluters out there."