BERLIN — After three years of legal posturing and 10 days after the trial began, testimony wrapped up on Wednesday in the landmark civil suit filed against a Berlin farm family and Perdue over alleged pollution violations dating back to 2009.
Testimony ended Wednesday in the civil trial pitting a New York-based environmental watchdog group against Berlin’s Hudson Farm and Perdue, but it could be several weeks before U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson hands down a ruling in the case. Both sides have been instructed to submit post-trial statements by Nov. 14, with responses due by Nov. 21. Closing arguments are tentatively set for Nov. 30 and the judge will rule at some point after that.
In March 2010, the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, along with the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) and the Assateague Coastkeeper, filed suit in U.S. District Court against Perdue and Berlin’s Hudson Farm, a contract factory farm operation of about 80,000 birds. The suit was filed after sampling in ditches adjacent to the property allegedly revealed high levels of harmful fecal coliform and E. coli in concentrations that exceed state limits.
The suit accused the farm of violating the state’s Clean Water Act. ACT and the Assateague Coastkeeper were dismissed as plaintiffs, leaving the Waterkeeper as the sole plaintiff in the case. The Hudsons and Perdue are the defendants.
The commencement of the trial came after months of legal posturing and a highly publicized battle of public opinion. A strong coalition of local, state and national farming advocates under the umbrella of Save Maryland Farms have been supporting the Hudsons through a massive fundraising campaign to help with legal expenses, pointing out the litigation against the small Berlin farm could happen to any of its members.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are being represented by the University of Maryland School of Law Environmental Law Clinic, which raised eyebrows early over the use of taxpayer-funded school in a civil suit against a Maryland family farm operation. In addition, while the Hudsons and Perdue stand together, the major poultry company at one point attempted to get dismissed as a plaintiff, causing some to question whether Perdue was attempting to distance itself from the farm and leave the family to fight the battle alone.
There are so many other layers to the case being watched closely by environmentalists, farmers and legal experts for its potentially landmark implications. It began when ACT officials spotted a pile of suspected chicken litter with water draining from it into ditches adjacent to the Berlin farm that ultimately reach the Chesapeake. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspected the pile and determined it was treated sewage sludge from Ocean City and not manure. MDE ordered the pile to be moved and covered, but not citations or violations were issued and the MDE closed its case.
At the close of the plaintiff’s case last week, the defense team filed a motion for dismissal, suggesting the Waterkeeper Alliance had not proven the alleged pollution violations or that the source of the high samples in the ditches originated at the Hudson Farm. The motion accused the plaintiffs of changing course in midstream, so to speak, focusing on exhaust fans at the chicken farm as the potential source and not the pile of alleged sewage originally cited.
After the close of testimony on Wednesday, both camps were claiming they successfully presented their cases. Defendant Alan Hudson quickly issued a statement expressing relief the ordeal appears to be nearing its end one way or the other.
“Kristin and I are relieved that the trial is over so we can go back to the business of running our farm and raising our children,” said Alan Hudson. “We are very grateful to the members of the community and the farmers from around the country who supported us during this ordeal. We look forward to the judge’s ruling so we will be able to put this nightmare completely behind us.”
Perdue was also quick to issue at statement at the close of testimony on Wednesday.
“After almost three years, this case came down to the proposition that any chicken house with a door or a fan is a source of pollution and therefore likely in violation of the Clean Water Act,” said Perdue spokesperson Julie DeYoung. “To make this ridiculous argument, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Assateague Coastal Trust and University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic put a farm family through hell, drove a wedge between farmers and environmentalists, and wasted taxpayer resources.”
Meanwhile, ACT was quick to issue its own statement on Wednesday.
“This case is about stopping water pollution,” ACT President Dr. Tom Jones’ statement reads. “Assateague Coastal Trust initiated it to address the continuing pollution found coming of the Hudson’s farm in more than a dozen water samples taken over a seven-month period.”
The ACT statement points out Perdue is as much to blame or more than the Berlin farm family.
“We also initiated it because we think poultry integrators have the duty to share the burden created by the massive amount of manure generated by the flocks they grown,” the ACT statement reads. “It’s fundamentally unfair to leave individual farmers with the nearly impossible job of handling the manure in an environmentally friendly way.”
In the statement, ACT officials said they were confident they presented a strong case during testimony.
“We are very pleased with the way the evidence and testimony supported Waterkeeper Alliance’s case,” the statement reads. “Clearly, from the testimony of the Perdue employees, Waterkeeper Alliance showed that every aspect of the operation of the poultry business on the Hudson Farm was controlled by Perdue. While we are prepared for any outcome, we believe Waterkeeper Alliance has demonstrated a strong case in which the fact and the law support our allegations of pollution from poultry waste discharging to the Pocomoke River.”
However, Perdue officials stated they did not believe the plaintiffs were successful in presenting their case during trial.
“While we are prepared for any outcome, and thank Judge Nickerson for his hard work in conducting the trial, we don’t believe the plaintiffs proved their case on any front and we look forward to being vindicated by the judge’s ruling,” said DeYoung. “We remain committed to responsible environmental stewardship and share that commitment with the farm families who raise our chickens.”
For their part, the Save Farm Families organization agreed the Waterkeeper Alliance did not successfully present a case against the Hudsons and Perdue.
“All along, we‘ve said that this lawsuit threatens family farms across the country, and the trial revealed the true agenda of the groups and of the individuals involved in the case- to use trumped up pollution charges to attack poultry farms,” said Save Farm Families spokesman Andrew McLean. “We believe it’s clear that the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Assateague Coastal Trust and the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic did not prove their case. They have continuously changed their story to find some reason to vilify a hardworking farm family just because they raise chickens. The best they could come up with is that dust from the poultry house fans and the small amount of litter from foot traffic in and out of the poultry house constitute a violation of the Clean Water Act.”