Chicken Plant Crackdown a Boost for Bay

We hear about the federal government's heavy hand in environmental protection. That hand came down last week where it belongs - on top of a chicken plant pumping pollution into Maryland waters.

The $6 million settlement last week against Tyson Foods' Berlin plant clamps down on the nutrient pollution suspected as the culprit in the Pfiesteria outbreak last year. It also sends just the right signal at a time when messages in the air conflict.

The plant in question may be on the Eastern Shore, but people on both sides of the Chesapeake need to keep in mind that pollution knows no bounds. The Chesapeake Bay is a community of interests in which all of us can be buffeted by storms seemingly far away. Just ask the charterboat captains and watermen in the Annapolis region, far from the Pocomoke River, who still haven't recovered from perceptions triggered by last year's Pfiesteria scare.

The settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice is noteworthy for many reasons. It went much farther than legislation in Maryland could travel because of the clout of the poultry lobbyists in Annapolis. Rather than striking at Maryland farmers, the deal corralled the world's biggest poultry producer. Tyson's is more than twice the size of Perdue or any of its competitors, producing over 125 million pounds of poultry meat yearly at plants around the country.

Many have a romanticized view of the chicken industry as long-time family farmers growing a few chickens on the side to make ends meet. In fact, the industry is dominated by huge contract farms and companies that ship one in five birds overseas. One way to look at it is that the Bay is threatened by chicken wastes so that corporations can profit from sales in China and around the world. Often, Chesapeake farmers, who are paid pennies a pound for the birds they raise, are victims like the rest of us.

As part of their contract with farmers, companies must provide feed for the birds. The settlement requires that the feed contain phytase, an enzyme that reduces the phosphorous in manure. (Phosphorous and nitrogen are the culprits here, causing algae blooms in the water, choking aquatic life and, scientists believe, stimulating microorganisms like Pfiesteria.)

Tyson's also must spend $300,000 to help its poultry farmers write plans to control runoff within two years. This provision, coupled with incentives from the federal government, will make it easier to create stream buffers and take the steps needed to stem pollution.

The settlement puts the poultry industry on notice that the federal government means business in a matter that is vital to the future of the Chesapeake Bay. So next time you hear a candidate preaching the ills of Big Government, tell them you know of a case when government was a Big Help.

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VolumeVI Number 19
May 14-20, 1998
New Bay Times

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