Commissioners Support Farmers In Clean Water Case

SNOW HILL — In the wake of last month’s ruling in favor of a local farm family in its case with the Waterkeeper Alliance last month, several Worcester County Commissioners came out in favor of the judgment and discussed the future of the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.

“This case seems to have losers all the way around and I hope that we can go forward,” Environmental Programs Director Bob Mitchell told the commissioners Wednesday.

The case, which also included Hudson Farm’s contract employer Perdue Farms, has been in the works since 2009 and has been considered controversial from the start. In 2009, the Waterkeeper Alliance claimed that chicken litter containing pollutants was illegally discharged into a tributary of the Pocomoke River through a pile of assumed chicken manure. However, subsequent investigation revealed that the pile was actually bio-solids obtained from the Ocean City Wastewater Treatment plant.

In the court’s findings of fact on the case, Judge William Nickerson took the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips to task for making public claims to the press without sufficient evidence and for not conducting important testing of the supposedly polluted area because the alliance felt that the sampling would have been too expensive. Nickerson eventually ruled that Hudson Farm conducted its operation properly and that Perdue Farms “should be commended, not condemned” for its actions, which the judge felt showed that the company has attempted to take the lead in addressing issues that the alliance considers priority, such as the health of local waterways.

Commissioner Jim Bunting referenced that same paragraph in summarizing his feelings on the case. Bunting claimed that Perdue and the poultry industry in general “is trying to do a good job” despite the pressure imparted by state regulations. Mitchell agreed and added that few people understand just how many ever-changing rules that the average chicken farmer has to follow.

Commission President Bud Church, who said he was speaking only from personal opinion, took an even harder view on the case, calling the allegations of pollution made by the Waterkeeper Alliance against Hudson Farm “unfounded.”

“It’s a travesty that this ever happened,” he said. “Going onto someone’s property without their permission, flying over with a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, making the allegations that were unfounded and cost the Hudson family a huge amount of money, cost Perdue a huge amount of money, for a case that had no substance. Justice has prevailed all-around. I hope there are some lessons to be learned here.”

Commissioner Virgil Shockley, a poultry farmer himself, took a position similar to Church’s, going so far as to call out the Waterkeeper Alliance for what he viewed as unjustified aggression.

“This was assault, and that’s all it was,” he said. “It was an assault on the poultry farm families in the state of Maryland. And the crazy thing was, it was funded by your tax dollars.”

Shockley was referring to legal representation for the Waterkeeper Alliance being provided free-of-charge by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Program, which is funded at least partially through tax revenue.

Though glad that a ruling in favor of the farmers has finally been delivered, Shockley criticized the courts for even allowing the case to progress to this point, citing the emotional and financial burden placed on poultry farmers who watched the case closely.

“There was a lot of apprehension; you have people who had to literally put their lives on hold waiting for this decision,” he said.

For the Hudson family, especially, Shockley reasoned that the process must have been excruciating and costly.

As far as legal expenses go, Mitchell told the commission that a ruling on whether the Hudson family will have to pay their fees or have them covered is expected in the near future.

The impact of the case on the poultry industry at large is still uncertain. Mitchell reiterated that the regulations that individual farmers have to deal with everyday can be exhausting. While he praised Maryland for many of the steps taken in recent years to make the state green and protect natural resources, he argued that going down that road too far too quickly could leave Maryland vulnerable in trying to compete with its industry neighbors.

“It’s great to be an innovator and to have a state move ahead, but you don’t want a state to move 10 steps ahead of their neighboring states,” said Mitchell.

Shockley asserted the poultry industry “is still strong, but they’ve taken a beating.” He pointed out that a decade ago there were 10 big names on the shore for chicken. That’s reduced to four today as some have closed down or shipped out of the area.

Still, Shockley noted that Worcester is the 24th largest producer of poultry in the country and said he hopes to see the industry continue as a mainstay on the shore.