Two key players in the Chesapeake Bay's Riverkeeper movement have left the organization to start a legal advocacy project that will focus on industrial agriculture and natural gas drilling.

Attorneys Scott Edwards and Michelle Merkel have joined Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization with offices around the country and in Belgium. Within the organization, they are setting up Food and Water Justice, which will add a legal component to their grassroots campaigns.

Food and Water Watch spun off from the group Public Citizen six years ago; in that time, the 80-employee group has fought to accurately label food, expose problems with the bottled-water industry and keep growth hormones out of milk. They were not active in Maryland and Virginia until 2009, when they lobbied to remove arsenic from chicken feed.

Edwards, who has spent 11 years fighting in the courts on water pollution issues, said he and Merkel approached Food and Water Watch about starting the advocacy project. Over the years, the Waterkeepers have become known in the region for their aggressive stances on issues ranging from poultry litter pollution to contamination from the steel industry. But, Edwards said, there were issues he felt he couldn't tackle because the Riverkeepers are so decentralized.

Merkel coordinated the Chesapeake campaigns, but each Riverkeeper remained more or less autonomous, and some were attached to watershed organizations that had different priorities.

"Michelle and I are eager to do some things on industrial agriculture that we just really couldn't get done under Waterkeepers," Edwards said. "It's a consensus model, and if you work there, you have to be respectful of that model. Now we don't have that limitation…it's kind of nice to have a little bit of autonomy."

Among the issues Edwards and Merkel hope to tackle: nutrient and sediment trading, which some Riverkeepers do support, and manure transport programs. They oppose both.

Food and Water Watch has been vocal in its opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling practice that uses millions of gallons of water under high pressure to force natural gas out of shale formations. In contrast to some environmental groups that advocate responsible drilling, Food and Water Watch endorses a complete ban on hydrofracking.

Through the new Food and Water Justice project, the organization will be joining other environmental groups that have brought the fight against fracking to the courts. One of the main pushes is to regulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act; the practice has been exempt from that federal regulation for six years.

"We believe that fracking cannot be conducted without violating the rights of people and the laws of the land, despite industry's best efforts to make themselves immune from any type of prosecution," said Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "We will be looking to bring regulators into court when they fail to adhere to their mandatory duties under state and federal law and we'll be bringing the industry before judges whenever we find violations of existing laws and whenever they are causing harm to communities."

Edwards said he's still getting up to speed on the legal issues surrounding natural gas drilling, which was a large issue in some watersheds where Riverkeepers worked, but not one of his core focus areas under the Waterkeeper Alliance. He said one of the big issues will be transparency - making sure that the governors' various state panels on fracking meet in the open and that the minutes from their decisions are available.

"There are groups involved in fracking litigation, but from my perspective, it's not enough," Edwards said. "It's not like mountaintop removal; you don't see that same kind of opposition." Edwards is referring to the uproar over surface mining that blasts the tops off mountains in West Virginia, which has destroyed streams and galvanized families and environmentalists alike.

Edwards remains the attorney of record in the Riverkeeper's lawsuit against Perdue and Hudson Farms, which accuses both entities of polluting waters of the United States through illegal discharges of poultry waste. The case is still pending in federal court.