In Maryland, poultry industry monitoring initiative restarts debate

In recent years, agribusiness groups have fought legislation that would require large-scale livestock farms to report what pollutants they discharge into the air. But this week, a Maryland poultry industry group announced a partnership with the state’s environmental regulators to monitor those emissions. The move has restarted a debate in the state over how to monitor the environmental impact of large-scale poultry farms.

The project, between Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., and the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE), will monitor “ambient air quality, including levels of ammonia and particulate matter” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in central Maryland, according to DPI’s press release.

“We heard a lot of people saying that they just didn’t know too much about air quality on the Eastern Shore,” says DPI’s communication manager James Fisher. “We thought, what can we do to add transparency to that situation?”

Yet the plan comes shortly after DPI, alongside other agribusiness groups, lobbied against state and federal requirements to monitor air emissions from livestock farms. Critics say the group can’t square its enthusiasm for transparency with its policy agenda.

The timing of the announcement is significant because Maryland’s legislature is expected to consider a bill this year that would address air emissions from factory farms.

“The timing isn’t coincidental,” says Michele Merkel, the co-director of Food & Water Justice at Food & Water Watch. “The study is being announced this week because they want to undermine the Community Healthy Air Act.”

The Community Healthy Air Act has been kicking around the Maryland statehouse for several years, and is likely to be reintroduced this session. The legislation would establish a protocol for the state Department of Environment to “quantify and assess certain air pollutants and public health risks associated with large animal–feeding operations.” It would require the agency to submit its findings for peer review and public comment, and would establish a state Committee on Air Quality to oversee these activities.

DPI has opposed the Community Healthy Air Act, mobilizing its members to urge legislators vote no on the bill and testifying against it in public hearings.

DPI has fought federal emissions monitoring requirements as well. Its former executive director testified in the U.S. Senate in support of the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act in 2018. Last year, as FERN reported in December, Congress approved the FARM Act, which exempted farms from reporting air emissions under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. CERCLA requires the reporting of air emissions over a certain threshold, which large livestock operations regularly exceed.

Fisher says that DPI’s partnership with Maryland was not a reaction to any recent legislative debate, but rather a response to community concerns on the Eastern Shore, which has one of the highest concentrations of poultry farms in the country and produces about 10 percent of the its processed chicken. Local residents have long been concerned that air pollution from poultry farms was causing or exacerbating health problems such as asthma.

DPI and MDE’s plan is less thorough than the one laid out in the Community Healthy Air Act. The project will involve installing two monitoring stations, one upwind and one downwind of poultry houses. The testing will last just one year, at which point MDE will evaluate the results and consider next steps. The project does not include a public comment period or peer review of the data.

MDE did not respond to a request for clarification about the technical specifications of the air monitoring.

Merkel says DPI’s monitoring plan shouldn’t be seen as an adequate substitute for the Community Healthy Air Act, which would monitor whether poultry farms are complying with state and federal law, among other provisions.

And public health experts, like Keeve Nachman, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, worry that the scope of the monitoring won’t yield useful results. “If you don’t do it right and you generate data that don’t truly reflect the situation of people living in communities near poultry operations, it might not be that helpful,” Nachman told the Baltimore Sun.

National livestock industry groups have pushed for exemptions from air emissions monitoring for years. In addition to supporting passage of the FARM Act, these groups have also supported the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to exempt farms from reporting air emissions to local officials under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The upshot of these new exemptions is that large-scale livestock farms face little regulation of their air emissions.