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PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – Steve Glasgow says things are changing on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The air smells bad now, he said, and the environment feels soiled. The gruff electrician who built his house in rural Somerset County in 1983 remembers being able to trap muskrats whenever he wanted. Today, he said, they’re all gone — and last year he saw a rat in the area for the first time. The population of flies has exploded, Glasgow said. He can leave five flytraps out in his garage, and they’ll be full in two days or less.
The fouling of the Delmarva, Glasgow and other residents say, can be attributed to the rapid proliferation of chicken CAFOs — “concentrated animal feeding operations” — which critics refer to as factory farms. Tens of thousands of chickens live in close quarters in these enclosed poultry houses, which are usually run by national producers such as Tyson and Perdue.
Industry representatives say that there are around 4,600 poultry houses currently operating on the Delmarva. Residents and researchers are calling for a state moratorium on the construction of new houses as another 200 are on track to be opened by the end of 2015. These operations use industrial-sized fans to pull air out of chicken houses, raising concerns over whether locals are being exposed to airborne toxins, and about the kinds of waste that are being drained into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“They keep saying there’s no environmental impact,” Glasgow said in response to industry representatives who maintain that the chicken houses are more environmentally friendly than ever. “But there is.”
“We want to be good neighbors,” said Bill Satterfield, the executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., a trade association that represents poultry producers on the peninsula. He added that people who live in agricultural areas need to understand what it means to live near farms.
Lisa Inzerillo of Princess Anne grew up around her grandparents’ farm in Sommerset County and lives on land that’s been in her family for more than four centuries. She knows that the Delmarva has always been poultry country. Her house, however, is also near a newly built chicken CAFO that she said her grandparents wouldn’t recognize.
“I’m not at all against poultry,” she said. “But this is industrial-sized farming. This does not belong in our neighborhood.”
While earlier generations of farmers would build one or two chicken houses on their property, many modern farms in Somerset County pack five, six, or even ten poultry houses — each up to 600 feet long — on a single plot of land.
Local zoning laws classify chicken CAFOs as agricultural land use (rather than industrial), meaning the chicken houses can be built as close as 200 feet to residential areas. Within three miles of Inzerillo’s house, she said, there are now about 80 chicken houses.
“I smell the ammonia,” Inzerillo, a flight attendant, said. “It’s the smell of manure. You can smell it from over a mile away.”
“You have to wear a dust mask if you ride through here,” said Glasgow, who lives down the road. “If you open your windows up and the wind’s going the right direction, you get chicken dust everywhere.”
In the wake of all this, researchers have become concerned about how the chicken CAFOs might impact residents’ health.
Dust from the chicken houses contains ammonia, said Jillian Fry, director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. “It contains particulate matter. It contains other volatile compounds. And of course pathogens from the chickens.”
In September, Fry was among seven researchers from Johns Hopkins who signed a sternly worded letter to Bill Satterfield, responding to what they say were false claims made by the poultry industry’s representatives. Contrary to industry statements, the letter contended that the number of chicken houses on the peninsula was increasing, and that the new houses were polluting waterways.
The letter stated that in 2013 at least 215,349 tons of poultry waste — containing 5 million pounds of phosphorous, which fuels toxic algal blooms in high concentrations — was moved off chicken farms in the area. Much of it ended up on agricultural land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“There are a lot of threats because of all the manure buildup and air pollution,” Fry said. “This is not just an environmental issue. It is very tied with public health.”
Satterfield said the industry is taking measures to mitigate pollution, such as planting buffer gardens around chicken farms. As an example of the industry’s environmental efforts, he mentioned a nearby facility that converts chicken manure into fertilizer. “We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said. “We’re far ahead of where we were 15 years ago.”
However, the Johns Hopkins researchers found that only seven percent of manure from surveyed farms ended up at that facility, and questioned the method’s sustainability. “These alternative uses of manure are not a realistic solution for current manure production or the forecasted increase in manure,” researchers wrote, joining the call for a moratorium on new chicken houses in Maryland until regulations are re-written.
Opponents are not surprised by the actions of an industry they see as putting profits above health and the environment. “There is only one thing that drives the industry and that is greed,” said Carole Morison, who used to run a chicken CAFO for a national poultry company and now sells free-range eggs to Whole Foods. “They want the jingle in their pockets.”
Andrew McLean, a Delmarva farmer with a chicken CAFO, disagrees. “Agriculture has been going this way for a long time,” he said. “It didn’t spring up like a daffodil.”
Regardless of the industry’s motives, it’s the largely unchecked growth that is angering residents and concerning researchers.
“We need more monitoring done before we put more facilities in,” said Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “The lack of evidence to drive policy is an issue.”
Calling the explosion of chicken CAFOs “environmental terrorism,” Wilson described what he viewed as the fallout. “You have no control over what happens to your community. You have no control over what happens near your house. The health of your kids, the health of your parents.”
“The zoning laws on agriculture are based on what agriculture was 50 years ago,” said Kathy Phillips, an environmental activist and outspoken critic of chicken CAFOs. You can’t even call it a farm anymore.”
The largest chicken CAFO in the county is now across the road from the senior living center where Phillips’ mother used to live. “That’s the new model,” Phillips said. “That’s what’s coming in here.”
Down the road from her own house, Lisa Inzerillo pointed to the chicken CAFO built by a developer who lives ten miles away. “You’re just looking at your bottom line,” she said. “That’s not farming to me.”
This report was made possible through a fellowship at the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.