The Maryland Department of the Environment is appealing a court decision that said the state would have to regulate air pollution associated with chickenhouses — a decision that would have far-reaching implications for the Eastern Shore’s poultry industry.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sharon Burrell ruled March 11 that Maryland must regulate ammonia released into the air as a water pollutant because some of it falls into waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act.
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the environmental group Assateague Coastal Trust last fall over the state’s latest general discharge permit rules for animal feeding operations. The group argued that the latest rules should have been updated to include ammonia.
“Assateague Coastal Trust thinks it’s a shame that MDE has decided to appeal the Court’s ruling; we hoped they would spend this energy protecting Maryland’s waters and community health, instead of going through the appeals process,” wrote Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips in a statement.
Ammonia, which is a form of nitrogen, is a byproduct of chicken waste; chickenhouses are equipped with large fans that pull ammonia out of the houses and into the air to prevent toxic buildups. When nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants, is deposited into waterways, it contributes to algal blooms that rob the waters of oxygen.
The state argued that to regulate a source of airborne pollution under the Clean Water Act would be a source of endless confusing red tape and set a bad precedent.
“This appeal will provide an opportunity to correct the unjustified, sudden insertion of air emissions regulations into a water quality permit,” echoed the industry group Delmarva Chicken Association in a statement from Executive Director Holly Porter.
In her ruling, Burrell wrote that the decision would not expand the Clean Water Act to include a litany of additional sources of pollution.
“Rather, Maryland has chosen to strengthen the CWA by broadening … key definitions,” she wrote.
While many chicken farmers already engage in best-practice methods to reduce ammonia emissions, these behaviors are entirely voluntary. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set air emissions standards for industrial-scale animal-feeding operations, citing a lack of data; consequently, MDE also does not have rules for these airborne emissions.
The appeal process means the case will be reviewed for fairness and opens a pathway for the matter may be taken to a higher court or for parties to negotiate a settlement.
“The court’s decision is a well reasoned and strong opinion that is going to have a positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay and we’re confident the decision will be upheld,” Phillips wrote.
Environmental watchdog reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.