BERLIN – An administrative law judge has ruled to reverse a permit for a poultry operation outside Berlin in response to a challenge from environmental groups.
Last week, David Hofstetter, an administrative law judge of the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings, proposed that the Maryland Department of the Environment’s approval of permit for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) on Purnell Crossing Road be reversed. The permit, which was granted by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) had been challenged by Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), the Environmental Action Center (EAC) and Paul and Mary Lou Bishop of Berlin.
The CAFO, which is currently under construction, will now have to be issued a new permit before it can begin operation.
“We were very pleased with the decision,” Mary Lou Bishop said. “Allowing industrial sized operations to cut corners hurts the community and especially local small independent farmers who often are held to a higher standard. We realize this CAFO will still continue operation but now, with more adequate water quality protections in place, our little community can be assured the letter of the law is to be followed.”
Kathy Phillips, executive director of ACT, said this was her organization’s first victory in “challenging a flawed CAFO permit.”
“This is not only a win for the Pocomoke River, but it is also a victory for the regulatory process as an end to rubber-stamping CAFO applications,” she said. “It is time somebody stood up to MDE and the poultry industry to stop this pipeline of rubber stamped approvals of CAFO permits. This was a clear case of a site plan that did not meet minimum protection measures of the Pocomoke River, and the judge took note.”
Initially, MDE reviewed a comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP) and subsequently approved a general discharge permit for a CAFO on Purnell Crossing Road known as Zaheer and Ishfaq Ahmed Farm. The CAFO, which features eight poultry houses and will house close to 400,000 chickens, was given approval to operate for up to two years without manure and mortality structures under the permit initially approved.
Phillips said the manure and mortality structures were critical in preventing pollutants from entering local waterways. ACT, EAC and the Bishops, who live across the street from the CAFO, filed an appeal of the permit decision in September. Hofstetter issued a “Proposed Decision” to reverse the permit approval May 30.
“Based on the Finding of Fact and Discussion, I conclude as a matter of law that the MDE’s final approval of the CNMP for Ahmed Farm was improper under state and federal law,” Hofstetter wrote in his decision.
Phillips said she hoped the decision would discourage future applicants from proposing CAFOs without ensuring all reequipments to protect public health and local waterways are met.
“MDE has never denied a permit under their CAFO program, and this is the first time a judge has stepped in on behalf of the environment,” said EAC’s David Reed. “We are thrilled with this decision. It represents a big win for the local community in Worcester County, their public health and the environment.”
He added, however, that there was one issue that wasn’t addressed by the judge.
“MDE had exempted storage requirements based on a lack of cost-share funds from the Maryland Agriculture Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS) Program,” he said. “EAC argued that this was inappropriate because the MACS Program is not intended for large CAFOs, rather for small scale farm operations. Despite EAC’s arguments, the judge decided the case without addressing the use of the MACS funds. EAC will continue to advocate against the use of these tax-payer dollars for industrial-sized CAFOs.”
According to Phillips, because Hofstetter has issued a “Proposed Decision,” it still has to be adopted by MDE.