Image by Andreas Göllner from Pixabay

Eighty four percent of the 182 Maryland poultry operations inspected by the state between 2017 and 2020 had one or more violations of their state water pollution control permits. But only four facilities – or two percent of the total – paid penalties, according to public records reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project.

About two thirds of the poultry operations that failed inspections had a waste management problem, such as manure left outside where rain can wash it into waterways, inadequate waste storage facilities, or unsanitary disposal of dead chickens.

And more than half of the poultry farms for which records were available in 2019 reported to the state that they spread manure on their crops in amounts greater than allowed under their nutrient management plans, which is illegal. However, the state imposed no penalties for these violations.

Maryland’s lack of enforcement of the poultry industry has had a damaging impact on the Eastern Shore’s waterways, where phosphorus pollution and algae levels have not improved over the last two decades, according to a pair of reports by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “Blind Eye to Big Chicken” and “Stagnant Waters.”

The reports are based on an examination of more than 5,000 pages of Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspection reports and Annual Implementation Reports filed with the Maryland Department of the Agriculture (MDA) by poultry farmers, as well as state water quality monitoring data. Public records are limited to poultry operations that apply waste to their own fields, while the majority of poultry litter generated every year is shipped offsite for use by other farms.

EIP’s report, “Blind Eye to Big Chicken,” documents how Maryland’s program to limit water pollution from poultry operations is riddled with gaps that make it nearly impossible to hold the industry accountable for pollution.

The number of poultry farms inspected by MDE on an annual basis has fallen by 40 percent since 2013, even as the number of permitted operations has grown slightly, according to state records. MDE inspected an average of 218 operations a year from 2013 through 2017, but only 134 per year from 2018 through 2020, with the decline predating the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than two-thirds of poultry operations were not inspected at all between 2017 and 2020, state records show. To make matters worse, when state inspectors do show up, they are not allowed to take soil samples to determine whether fields are saturated with nutrients and likely to run off into public waterways. State inspectors also do not sample for ammonia air pollution from the exhaust fans of poultry houses, and they do not routinely test water from nearby streams and ditches. In short, the state’s inspections are limited to observing obvious problems – like uncovered manure piles open to rain and wind – and to review of the operator’s own records.