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The Price of Poultry

A few fun facts about the environmental impact of Delmarva’s poultry industry, from this 1999 Washington Post article:

Poultry’s Price: The Cost to the Bay

* Perdue, the country’s second-largest chicken producer, trucks millions of gallons of waste a year from its Delaware slaughterhouses into Maryland, where the loads are injected into fields.

* Some scientists believe the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida – which bloomed two years ago on the Pocomoke River, prompting its closure as a health hazard – also feeds on excess nutrients and algae. The Pocomoke drains much of Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore and southern Delaware, emptying into the Chesapeake.

* Throughout chicken country, as many as one-third of all wells exceed EPA safe drinking water standards for nitrate, a form of nitrogen concentrated in chicken waste that seeps into groundwater, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

* USGS has also found trace amounts of arsenic in the Pocomoke, the likely residue of the arsenic added to chicken feed to kill harmful parasites and promote growth.

* Poultry on the lower shore sends more than four times as much nitrogen into the bay as the biggest nonagricultural source – leaky septic tanks and runoff from developed areas – and more than three times as much phosphorus as the second-largest nonfarm source, sewage treatment plants. And that’s before factoring in other ways chicken waste reaches water – through slaughterhouses discharging treated waste water and burying sludge, a mud-like leftover scraped from treatment plants.

* Every working day, a dozen slaughterhouses slice the necks of more than 2 million birds, using more than 12 million gallons of water to flush away more than 1,600 tons of guts, chicken heads, fat globules, feathers and blood. The slaughterhouses treat the water before they release it to creeks, but it still contains some pollution.

* “The good Lord only gave us three ways to deal with our problem,” said Perdue’s manager for environmental services, John K. Chlada, in a speech before the Maryland Coastal Bays Program Citizen Advisory Committee. “We can put it out in the air, put it out in the water or put it out on the land. Where do you want me to put it?”

* Near the town of Rehobeth, Md., on the lower Pocomoke River, chicken houses outnumber all other structures, stretching like freight trains across the land.

* chicken houses necklace the Nanticoke River, sending more pollution toward the Chesapeake

* Lands drained by Indian River Bay and Little Assawoman Bay – harder hit by nutrient pollution than the Chesapeake – have enormous surpluses of chicken manure, the University of Delaware study found.

* Big storms send pulses of pollution through rivers. A rainy winter can increase pollution for the whole year. A drought can have the opposite effect.

* A 1997 Maryland Environment Department survey of the St. Martin’s River, the largest tributary to the state’s coastal bays, found “many large piles” of chicken litter, “ranging into the hundreds of tons,” near ditches and creeks that feed the main stem.

* The team stopped at the headwaters of Kings Creek, outside the town of Princess Anne, less than a mile above the bend where pfiesteria broke out. Three chicken houses, each 300 feet long, stood gleaming in the sunshine alongside the creek, a ribbon of chocolate-brown water. “It’s clear where the nutrients are coming from,” Summers said, gesturing at a narrow ditch draining the fields near the chicken houses. It passed through a grove of maple trees, then emptied into the creek. “I don’t know how much more evidence they need.”

* A “phosphorus sink,” is how some scientists speak of the Chesapeake region.

* Maryland surveys of the Pocomoke, Transquaking and Manokin river systems, where pfiesteria first entered the local lexicon, concluded that 70 percent to 87 percent of all nutrients reaching those waters came from farms.

* the surface of Allen Pond in April, hoping to land a fish, the soupy brown water spoke of the hundreds of chicken houses upstream.

* ammonia gas – a form of nitrogen particularly favored by algae – floats off piles of manure, with some settling into nearby ditches and creeks. A recent Dutch study found that as much as 30 percent of the nitrogen in a manure pile can land in water this way.

* A USGS survey released in January found trace amounts of arsenic in the lower Pocomoke River in Maryland in four of five samples taken during a survey in September 1997.

* Nitrates contaminate one-third of all groundwater in Delmarva’s agricultural areas, according to a USGS study during the late 1980s. Many of the samples contained three to four times as much nitrate as the EPA considers safe for drinking water.

* 10 percent to 15 percent of all wells tested in Sussex County exceeded federal nitrate standards.

* Although roughly half of Delmarva’s 600,000 residents draw their water from private wells, the three states barely oversee their safety.

* a well driller in Seaford, Del., said that more than one-third of the time, the water samples he collects reveal nitrates in excess of federal health standards

* Contaminated groundwater adds to the nutrient pollution reaching rivers and bays

* Irrigation nozzles send more waste into groundwater, spraying more than 3 million gallons of treated waste water daily on fields surrounding processing plants, hatcheries and rendering plants.

* Townsends’s plant in Millsboro, Del., spray-irrigates the 2 million gallons of waste water it generates a day, rather than discharging it toward the nutrient-polluted Indian River as in years past.

* In 1995, state tests found that the wells supplying drinking water for Allen’s plant workers contained more than twice as much nitrate as the EPA deems safe.

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