A new report finds that Maryland state agencies regularly cite Eastern Shore poultry operations for pollution permit violations but rarely hand out penalties.

More than 80% of 182 poultry farms visited by state inspectors between 2017 and 2020 were found out of compliance with their pollution-control permits, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, which reviewed more than 5,000 pages of inspection documents from the state departments of environment and agriculture. Most of those failures stemmed from a blend of recordkeeping errors and waste management problems, such as manure left on driveways or unsanitary handling of dead birds. Some involved excessive application of manures.

Interior of a poultry house

Thousands of chickens cover the floor of a cavernous Eastern Shore poultry operation. 

Yet penalties were scarce, the advocacy group said. The Maryland Department of the Environment imposed fines on just eight of the 78 farms with repeat violations — and collected those fines in only four cases.

“I’m talking about penalties of only a couple hundred bucks, the kind of penalties you’d pay if you were late paying for a parking ticket,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Washington, DC-based nonprofit and former head of civil enforcement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If the state’s oversight hadn’t been so lax, he added, “we wouldn’t see these violations continuing year after year, and they wouldn’t be as serious as we are finding.”

The MDE didn’t directly dispute any of the report’s findings. But in a statement, spokesman Jay Apperson said that the agency’s inspections “met or exceeded” the required EPA standards during that period. And only two violations were tied to pollution that was fouling nearby waterways. Both led to fines.

“MDE is collaborating with the [Maryland Department of Agriculture] to increase the number of inspections while providing outreach and education to the regulated community,” Apperson said. “This outreach and education will seek to ensure the regulated community meets water quality goals while improving compliance with the recordkeeping and housekeeping expectations of the permit.”

The Delmarva Chicken Association, which represents a tri-state region of poultry interests, quickly fired back at the Environmental Integrity Project with a 1,000-word rebuttal titled, Correcting Their Record.

The EIP report, the industry group charged, is “littered with errors and assumptions” that paint an inaccurate picture of the sector’s progress in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution.

The chicken association, a 75-year-old organization formerly known as the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., produced the memo after the EIP’s Oct. 28 report generated negative headlines around the region.

“For us, it was just frustrating to see headlines that didn’t seem to match reality,” said Holly Porter, the association’s executive director. She added that higher fines won’t make farms any cleaner, likening them to speeding tickets. “Writing the ticket and giving the $100 fine is not solving the bigger issues of making sure people are driving safe through the area.”

The EIP has been among the Eastern Shore chicken industry’s most vociferous critics, authoring several reports in recent years claiming to link the industry's practices to environmental and human health harms.

The industry itself is changing. Small, family-run farms containing two or three chicken houses were once the norm. Those have been replaced by industrial-scale operations, with a half-dozen or more houses.

The houses are bigger, too. Although the number of Maryland poultry farms has remained around 500 since 2013, the number of birds produced has gone up by nearly 10%. As EIP and other detractors see it, the trend has multiplied the industry’s problems: more air pollution, more manure and more conflicts with neighbors.

And regulators have failed to keep pace, they contend. The state only employs three inspectors, and one of those is a supervisor with other duties beyond inspections, according to the report. The number of inspections dropped from an average of 218 a year from 2013 through 2017 to 134 per year from 2018 through 2020, with that decrease predating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The enforcement lapses endanger the progress of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. The state-federal Bay Program faces a 2025 deadline to implement pollution controls, and most of the remaining cuts, studies show, need to occur in the agricultural sector.

“We’re never going to make real progress in reaching these goals if we don’t ensure everyone’s getting there,” she said. “This is a failure of government enforcement, and they’re just not doing their job.”

MDE takes a “compliance assistance” approach when violations are initially uncovered, officials say. The goal is to get farmers to correct problems without the need for financial penalties. But that strategy has been taken too far, some environmentalists argue.

About two-thirds of operations that failed inspections had some sort of waste-management problem, such as inadequate storage that could allow rain to wash waste into local waters. But paperwork problems were far more widespread, according to the EIP report. Nearly all of the farms that failed inspections had self-reporting issues, such as failing to submit annual reports.

The oversight shortfalls extend to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, according to EIP. The agency tracks farmers that use chicken manure as fertilizer to make sure they aren’t spreading too much. Historically, that’s been the case, with excess nutrients washing off into nearby ditches and streams.

In 2019, according to the report, 29 of 57 poultry operations that apply manure to their own land reported applying manure in excess of their nutrient management plans. But at no time during the study period did the MDA fine a farm for failing to follow its manure limits, EIP said. The state, though, was transitioning for much of that time to a new method for limiting nutrient pollution from farm fields, called the phosphorus management tool. It only took full effect July 1 this year.

The report calls for both agencies to fine violators more often. Tom Pelton, one of the report’s authors, also offered a speeding ticket analogy: “If people weren’t penalized for speeding, there’d be more deaths and more accidents on our highways. Pollution violations are very similar.”

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