Farm Pollution Trial Underway, Might Last 3 Weeks

BERLIN — After nearly three years of legal posturing and public campaigning by both camps, the potential landmark trial in the civil suit filed against a Berlin farm and Perdue by environmentalists opened this week in a federal courthouse in Baltimore.

In March 2010, the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, along with the Assateague Coastal Trust 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 Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit in federal court accusing the farm of violating the state’s Clean Water Act. ACT and the Assateague Coastkeeper early on were dismissed as plaintiffs in the case, leaving the Waterkeeper as the sole plaintiff in the case. The Hudsons and Perdue are the defendants. The trial, with Judge William Nickerson presiding, is expected to last at least three weeks.

The commencement of the trial comes after nearly three years 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 continue to 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 Berlin farm family and leave the Hudsons 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.

Before the case opened on Tuesday morning, both camps continued to posture with pre-trial releases and press conferences in front of the courthouse in Baltimore. For its part, despite a failed motion to be dismissed as a defendant, Perdue stood by the Hudsons as the trial commenced.

“This case has never been about pollution, but about an extreme activist group’s opposition to modern agriculture and their use of hard-nosed litigation to achieve their objectives,” the statement reads. “Unfortunately, Alan and Kristin Hudson and the possible bankrupting of this fourth-generation Maryland farm family are the collateral damage in the Waterkeepers’ attack on the poultry industry.”

Locally, the Assateague Coastal Trust said Perdue is as much or more responsible for the alleged pollution violations as the small Berlin farm.

“ACT believes that Perdue has a responsibility for pollution coming from the farms of its contract growers,” the ACT statement reads. “Perdue, like most large poultry companies, controls nearly every aspect of the business when growing a bird, but leaves the work and the risks of managing manure to the farmer. Then, when an action is brought asking Perdue to help end pollution, it claims it has no legal responsibility and declares that this suit is solely a campaign against family farms.”

ACT stood behind its advocacy brethren as the trial got underway.

“Measures like these are not anti-farm or anti-farmer,” the ACT statement reads. “They are sensible steps needed to protect water, perhaps our most vital natural resource. At the Assateague Coastal Trust, protecting water is part of what we do. It is why we initiated this lawsuit and it is why Waterkeeper Alliance is going to court. We continue to support that worthy effort.”

Meanwhile, Save Maryland Farms and the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI) was looking forward to the Hudson Farm and Perdue coming out on top in the litigation.

“The show of support we have received has been incredible,” said DPI President Andrew McLean. “People throughout Maryland and around the country have rallied together to make their voice heard on the Hudsons’ behalf. We know that any farmer could have the target of the Waterkeepers’ frivolous lawsuit and we are looking forward to a favorable outcome to the trial.”