After a local company built four hulking poultry barns across the street from April Ferrell’s farmhouse on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, thousands of chickens were trucked in and giant exhaust fans on the outside of the barns began to whir.
Almost immediately, Ferrell noticed a sickly stench and the sting of ammonia in the air. A dusty, mustard-colored film started coating some trees near the fans, and Ferrell started to wonder: Is the air blowing out of the barns toxic? And what will happen this coming summer, when it gets warmer and all 64 of those fans across the road start turning?
“As bad as it is now,” she said on a late winter afternoon in the kitchen of the house where she grew up, “this summer it’s going to be horrible.”
The Delmarva Peninsula, an area along the Chesapeake Bay that encompasses most of Delaware, Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a spit of eastern Virginia, hosts one of the nation’s highest concentrations of poultry producers. The peninsula is the birthplace of modern American chicken production, where the poultry business—including heavyweights Perdue Farms, Mountaire Farms and Tyson Foods—is entrenched in the local economy, politics and culture.
As the country’s demand for chicken has soared—Americans eat three times more chicken now than they did 50 years ago—Delmarva-area production has soared along with it. Last year, the region produced more than 600 million chickens, more than double the tally from the 1960s. Much of that meat is shipped out of Norfolk, Va., the poultry industry’s fourth-largest port, to feed a booming global demand.
Now, tourists headed to the peninsula’s beaches speed along a flat coastal plain studded with gleaming chicken complexes, as an older generation of obsolete barns collapses in the background.
But recently, more residents have started pushing back against Big Poultry. They’re tired, they say, of seeing bucket-loaders routinely dump hundreds of dead chickens into “mortality composters.” They’re tired, they say, of the smell, of driving home on roads flecked with manure, or pulling into their driveways at night through showers of manure particles and feathers that drift past headlights like falling snow.
It’s not just the unpleasantness or diminishing property values that bothers people. Many residents worry that emissions from chicken barns—ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter—mostly from chicken manure and urine, are making them sick and worsening the region’s rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses.
Even though these animal feeding operations, or AFOs, emit climate-warming gases and air pollution that’s linked to illness, these air emissions are not generally regulated or monitored under federal or state law.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to approve a method for estimating AFO air emissions that would allow regulators to determine if the facilities meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has also exempted most AFOs from reporting air pollution under the federal Superfund law, which regulates ammonia and hydrogen sulfide as hazardous substances, and under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, or EPCRA.
A federal circuit court overturned those exemptions last year, saying the EPA violated the law. But earlier this year, members of Congress, including Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware—where Sussex County produces more chickens than any county in the country—began pushing a bill that would make the Superfund exemption permanent.
That legislation was tucked into a government spending bill that Congress passed in March, taking away a powerful tool for understanding air pollution from animal agriculture.
In the absence of state or federal safeguards, residents of the Eastern Shore—where nearly everyone’s livelihood is linked to the poultry industry, and where poultry-heavy counties are among the poorest in the state—have unsuccessfully pushed for local action. They want the state to require an air monitoring study near the AFOs. That, at least, would tell them what’s in the air they’re breathing, they believe.
Ferrell, a middle school librarian and mother of three, grew up in the chicken business. Her parents owned chicken barns that still stand on the family’s property. Many of her relatives, including her husband and an uncle who lives next door, make their living from poultry. But the growth of the industry has pushed her to a limit. She worries about her kids playing near the fans, about family picnics that might have happened, but now won’t, and about living indoors—windows closed—all summer.
“We were outside all the time,” Ferrell, 40, said. “But this generation, they’re not going to have that life.”
“These things are popping up outside my kitchen. I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” she said. “This is my family and my kids.”
No Longer Farms, They’re the Industrial Facilities Next Door
The chicken industry has long dominated the Delmarva Peninsula, but some Eastern Shore residents say the business is different now.
“Chicken houses” were once just low-slung barns here and there. Today, the barns are massive—many longer than 600 feet—and each can contain nearly 40,000 birds. Barns used to occupy large tracts of farmland, out of view. Today, they’re being built in groups of 20 or more in some cases and on smaller parcels close to residential areas. (Larger AFOs, known as CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—have at least 1,000 cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 hogs or 30,000 “broilers,” chickens that are raised for meat.)
“The buildings have gotten bigger, and the complexes have gotten bigger,” explained Michele Merkel, a director with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “Now you have parts of Maryland that are shockingly dense, where people have more than 100 chicken houses within three miles of their homes.”
In addition to mortality composters and hangar-like barns, the properties have manure sheds that can be filled to overflowing. Producers often spray the manure onto topsoil to dispose of it, but in some counties, farmland is so saturated with phosphorus from the manure that state regulators have limited that practice. Instead the manure gets trucked out of state, along narrow country roads.
While pollution from these manure sheds can contaminate waterways, Eastern Shore residents are increasingly worried that the chicken houses—with their dozens of giant fans circulating air in and of the barns—are spewing pollution into the air.
Lisa Inzerillo lives on land in Somerset County that’s been in her family since the 1800s. Within a three-mile radius of the house she shares with her husband, Joe, there are 95 chicken barns, and more are on the way.
“They tell me they have to blow fresh air into the houses for the chickens or they’ll die,” Inzerillo says. “Well, what about the air they blow out? We’re expected to breathe what comes out of there. We want to know—I think families should know—what’s coming out of those houses.”
Asthma Rates Are High, but There’s Little Regulation
AFOs are among the largest producers of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in the country. According to the most recent National Emissions Inventory, of the 3.9 million tons of ammonia emitted in the U.S., 2.2 million tons came from livestock waste and 1 million from synthetic fertilizer.
Ammonia can cause respiratory irritation, coughing and chronic lung disease. Hydrogen sulfide can cause inflammation of the eyes and respiratory tract, and, at high concentrations, can lead to respiratory tract paralysis and death. Nearly 50 percent of the workers inside poultry barns suffer from upper respiratory illnesses, according to research, and children living near hog AFOs are more likely to have asthma.
Yet, unlike other facilities that emit these potentially harmful compounds in substantial amounts—at least 100 pounds a day—AFOs don’t have to say exactly what they’re emitting. The EPA requires many AFOs to have permits for discharging polluted water, but there are no similar requirement for air emissions.
“It’s clear the EPA has no enthusiasm to tackle this, either in the Obama or Trump administrations,” said Abel Russ, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
Even those pushing for regulation on air emissions from AFOs concede it’s more difficult to measure air emissions from farms because those emissions are more diffuse than emissions from smokestacks or other pollution sources. But that’s a difficulty that powerful agricultural interests have exploited, in part by pushing for reporting exemptions and aggressively fending off regulations, critics say.
A recent EIP report found that the average Delmarva chicken operation emits 20 tons of ammonia a year—twice the EPA estimate. Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. (DPI), the regional trade association, notes that the number of chicken houses on the peninsula declined from 2005 to 2015, but more recent industry data from 2017 show that 500 new chicken barns have popped up around the region since 2012.
Russ notes that the birds themselves are bigger, too—and bigger birds mean more manure.
“If you look at pounds, that’s the number that’s going up,” he said. “And that’s what’s driving emissions.”
(Industry data show that the number of pounds of chicken raised on the peninsula has gone from about 2.2 billion in 1987 to about 4.2 billion last year.)
NASA research links a boom in ammonia emissions to livestock, and the agency says emissions will continue to rise with growth in production and increasing global temperatures. This is especially problematic for the Delmarva region, where ammonia is a major contributor to chronic pollution in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Poultry Industry’s Influence Runs Deep on Delmarva
In 2014, Inzerillo went to the county government and asked why she was never told the new AFOs were coming. She discovered the county doesn’t notify residents and that the state’s Department of the Environment, which issues the required water pollution permits, only posts them online. Inzerillo asked for public hearings, which local regulators agreed to, but she quickly ran into unsympathetic politicians and roadblocks.
“These are people who work in the industry,” Inzerillo said. “They can’t say anything.”
Throughout the region, county boards are populated with grain growers and chicken house contractors, and state lawmakers have deep ties to agriculture. Charles Otto, who represents Somerset and Worcester counties in the Maryland House of Representatives, is also president of the Wicomico County Farm Bureau. Jacob Day, mayor of Salisbury—the commercial hub of the Eastern Shore—is the son of the CEO of Perdue.
“The hospital was built by chicken. The university system was built by chicken,” said Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, an environmental group based on the Eastern Shore.
So, after their county-level efforts failed, Inzerillo, some neighbors and a growing list of AFO opponents sought help from statewide advocacy groups and legislators. In Wicomico County, residents banded together to do the same.
When Monica Brooks found out that a new AFO complex was slated for a piece of land near her house in Salisbury, she helped launch Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs, whose members started attending county council meetings.
“They ignored us, they called us anti-poultry, they said it would provide jobs,” Brooks recalls. “We went to the government officials in our backyard, but we got crickets.”
In 2017, and again this year, state lawmakers considered bills to address the issue. The most recent—The Community Healthy Air Act—would have required a one-time study of air near a representative sampling of AFOs.
“The people of the Eastern Shore, and particularly in Wicomico County, asked their representatives to help, and their local and state elected officials didn’t respond,” said Maryland Delegate Robbyn Lewis, a Democrat from Baltimore who sponsored the legislation. “And we know we can’t count on the EPA.”
At a hearing on Lewis’s bill in February, Stephan Levitsky of Perdue said air monitoring near chicken operations in Maryland’s Kent and Dorchester counties showed that levels of all particulate matter didn’t exceed EPA limits from 2012 to 2017. He also cited University of Georgia research that found that, even under “worst case scenario” conditions, ammonia levels near exhaust fans were under 1 part per million between 60 and 90 percent of the time, depending on distance from barns. Several farmers added that they raise their own families in and around chicken houses and report no health effects.
“People who have worked in the poultry industry their entire life are not being plagued with health problems,” said Bill Massey, a executive with Mountaire Farms.
Massey noted that University of Delaware and U.S. Department of Agriculture research shows that by adding certain chemicals to chickens’ bedding, farmers gain greater control over ammonia emissions. This, in turn, lowers the carbon footprint of chicken operations, because the fans don’t have to run as often, which lowers energy consumption.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements,” Massey said. “And we’re going to make more.”
The poultry industry sees any kind of emissions study as a precursor to regulation. In an effort to thwart support for the bill, the executive director of DPI, Bill Satterfield, said at the hearing that the EPA is already developing air-emissions tests for AFOs.
“We think it makes no sense to have a Maryland-only protocol,” Satterfield said. “EPA is working on methodologies.”
EPA’s Response: Delay, Due to ‘Shifting Agency Priorities’
But Satterfield’s assurance misrepresents federal regulatory work on AFOs. In fact, the EPA has stalled in its efforts to develop a way to measure air pollution from AFOs.
The agency has not finalized a methodology to estimate AFO emissions, a problem laid out last year after an investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency had delayed the release of the emissions methodologies because of technical concerns raised by an agency advisory board and because of “shifting agency priorities and funding.”
Making the situation worse, critics say, is a rule issued by the EPA in 2008—at the request of the poultry industry—exempting the facilities from reporting air emissions under the federal Superfund law, and all but the largest operations from reporting releases under EPCRA.
These reporting laws, environmental groups say, are critical, not just because they let the public and regulators know how much pollution industries are emitting, but because they prod polluters to cut emissions.
“There’s evidence from EPA itself that once a facility is required to report emissions, it takes steps to reduce emissions,” said Jonathan Smith, an attorney with Earthjustice.
Environmental groups, including Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice, challenged the reporting exemption from EPA’s 2008 rule. In April of last year, federal appeals judges in Washington, D.C., overturned the rule, saying it was illegal and handing environmental groups a victory. Since then, though, the EPA has asked for several delays in implementing the reporting requirement. Meanwhile, the EPA issued guidance last fall, saying that farms engaging in “routine agricultural operations” don’t have to report emissions under EPCRA.
Amid the delays, federal lawmakers decided to go for a permanent exemption under the Superfund law. A bill introduced earlier this year—the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act—exempts AFOs from reporting air emissions under the Superfund law. That bill was tucked into spending legislation passed this spring, and now the EPA’s Superfund exemption rule is the law.
In the Emergency Room, a Doctor Sees More Respiratory Cases
Satterfield, who testified in support of the bill at a hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said ammonia levels near poultry CAFOs are “at very low levels and they dissipate rapidly into the air.”
But Big Poultry opponents on the Eastern Shore don’t want to settle for the industry’s word.
Joe Inzerillo, a physician for 40 years, worries that constant dusting of particles from the chicken barns near his home has caused a slate of respiratory problems. He placed a monitor outside his house, which he said measured “above normal” levels of ammonia. Inzerillo also estimates that between 40 and 60 percent of the patients who come into his emergency room are there because of breathing problems.
“I have inhalers, I use a nebulizer, I wheeze, I get sinus infections,” Inzerillo said, pointing to devices scattered on his kitchen counter. “Now, I’m a patient.”
“I went to the county, went on record as a physician, that this is a potential health issue. I put them on notice,” Inzerillo added. “Ammonia is ammonia.”
It’s unclear if Inzerillo’s health problems are linked to chicken production.
“This is about understanding the levels of these pollutants that find their way into communities. Are they high enough to make people sick and do they persist long enough to make people sick?” asked Keeve Nachman, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which would have helped design the Maryland air emissions study if the Community Healthy Air Act had passed.
“The question is: Is industrial agriculture contributing to the burden of disease?” he said.
For now, residents of the Eastern Shore won’t get an answer.
Top photo: Modern poultry facilities often house tens of thousands of chickens. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Editor’s note: This story has been to corrected to state that chicken manure on Delmarva is stored in dry form only and not in lagoons.