Poultry and Pollution on the Eastern Shore

Apr 11, 2019

Last week, Governor Ralph Northam unveiled the final phase of a 15-year plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  The goal is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff which is blamed for massive algae blooms and dead zones.  Experts say one thing that might keep us from achieving that goal by 2025 is massive chicken farms on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  Sandy Hausman traveled to Accomack County and filed this report:

More than six million chickens may be raised at a single complex on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Two of the nation’s largest chicken processing plants are in Accomack County.  It’s convenient and cost-effective for them to have local contractors providing the birds they need, and the jobs of about 3,000 area residents depend on a steady supply. On a driving tour of Accomack County, you’ll see them off state route 13 – about 500 long, barn-like structures.

More than 200 of them were built in the last five years.  The older operations might raise 25,000 birds in 5 or 6 houses, but the new enterprises are a whole lot bigger.

“The new farms that we’re seeing + are now 48,200 birds per house, and instead of six houses we have some sites that have 24 houses," says Jay Ford with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We’re talking about some facilities that will raise 6.3 million birds on a single parcel of land.”

He thinks current regulations were not designed for these concentrated feeding operations.  The county requires producers to keep chicken waste out of local streams, but Ford says a changing climate and increased stores of manure spell trouble.

“The 25-year rain events that these facilities are supposed to be engineered for happen with far more regularity, and where we’re getting sheets of water coming off the facility, it’s moving out through the storm water facility just was quickly as it’s filling up the pond.”

Then there’s the fact that poultry producers provide manure to local farmers who use it to fertilize their fields. Some of that ends up running off – into creeks and the bay, and community activist Sue Mastyl says no one is watching to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Finding out where the manure is being spread, making sure that it’s being stored correctly, transported correctly, spread at the appropriate time, not spread too close to the creeks – all of that is supposed to be happening, but we can’t get any verification of that.”

Giant chicken barns also send clouds of ammonia through the air. You can’t see it, but Jay Ford and I could smell it as we drove by a six-house complex.

“As you can see each of these houses has massive fans on the end of the houses, and what they’re used is to cool the birds and also to remove ammonia out of the house that’s produced by the litter,” Ford explained. 

Not only is that a misery for neighbors, but it’s also polluting the bay.

“One of the estimates from the Chesapeake Bay Program is that one third of all airborne nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay comes from animal ammonia, so it’s not an insignificant amount, but there’s absolutely no tracking, there’s no monitoring and no regulation to control how much you’re allowed to emit.”

One other issue concerns Ford, Mastyl and other environmentalists.  To cool chicken barns, local farmers need water, and most of them are taking it from the same aquifer that supplies residents of the Eastern Shore.

“The initial numbers are hair-raising," Ford says. "We’re looking at in excess of 3 million gallons per day of extra use.”

Add to that fears that pollution from poultry could jeopardize the shore’s aquaculture industries. Sue Mastyl lives at the intersection of two creeks that flow into the bay:

“We have guys growing oysters and clams, and they’re obviously going to be impacted by that,” she says.

On an encouraging note, the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences did some preliminary testing and found no correlation between poultry operations and higher nitrogen, phosphorous of fecal coliform in Accomack watersheds. The director of VIMS Eastern Shore lab added that the sample size was limited, and promised additional studies this summer.

Some larger producers have agreed to draw water from shallow aquafers, conserving Accomack’s drinking water, and the county notes a steep decline in applications to build new chicken barns.