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Air Monitoring Legislation May Be Path Forward for Health on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

By: Christine Grillo

For years, residents of the Eastern Shore of Maryland have been asking their local legislators and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to help them with a local problem. They live in communities that are home to industrial-scale poultry operations, where hundreds of thousands of birds are raised in chicken houses next to residential neighborhoods, and they feel that their health is suffering as a result. The stench from the chicken houses is bad enough, they say, but they must also contend with health problems such as asthma and persistent sinus infections, runny noses and headaches that they believe are a result of those poultry operations. Are their health problems caused by the ammonia and other pollutants blown from chicken houses through exhaust fans? There aren’t enough data to answer that question.

“There are no [air quality] studies that address what’s happening here,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network. “This [study] has to be done locally.”

Ms. O’Laughlin was addressing the Maryland House of Delegates Committee on Environment and Transportation, speaking in favor of the Community Healthy Air Act. The bill, known as known as SB 133 in the Maryland Senate and HB 26 in the House, proposes to assemble an expert committee to design a study to monitor air quality at a representative sampling of industrial-scale animal agriculture operations sites across the state. The committee convened under the bill would be composed of scientists with expertise in areas such as air pollution modeling, epidemiology, toxicology and risk assessment. The debate around the bill has been contentious among legislators from across the state, who oppose it for several reasons. One reason for their resentment is that its sponsors—Senator Rich Madaleno from Montgomery County and Delegate Robbyn Lewis from the 46th District in Baltimore City—represent urbanized districts far removed from the rural dynamic on the Shore.

But grassroots organizations composed of Eastern Shore residents have pleaded with their local legislators—people like Delegate Charles Otto who represents Somerset and Worcester counties and is president of the Wicomico County Farm Bureau—to help them investigate the matter for years; their pleas have been ignored. But now, having found legislators who will respond to their concerns, they are advocating for a bill that facilitates air monitoring studies not only at chicken operations on the Shore, but across the state, encompassing dairy operations in western Maryland and swine operations in southern Maryland.

Monica Brooks, a concerned citizen of Salisbury, Md., said at the House hearing, “My local delegates refuse to get involved. Their response is consistently [that] the poultry industry is a large part of the economy and provides a lot of jobs.”

Gabby Cammarata, another resident of the Eastern Shore and founder of Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs, said at the House hearing, “To date not one agency or local government has responded to our concerns in a meaningful way. We have repeatedly asked our delegation for help, but to date no one has responded to our request for air monitoring.”

Another point of opposition to the bill is that it might be duplicative in light of another study, the National Air Emissions Monitoring Study (NAEMS), which was funded by the animal agriculture industry and conducted jointly by the EPA and land-grant universities. But those in favor of the bill point out that the NAEMS study was reviewed by the Agency’s Science Advisory Board that found the study’s methodology flawed and the results unusable, in part because the studies merely reported what comes out of the exhaust fans, not community exposures; furthermore, the study did not monitor air from any sites in Maryland.

At the House hearing, Ms. O’Laughlin said, “A localized study addresses what’s happening on the ground, and there are no studies that address what’s happening here. … I can’t imagine any universe where this body would be interested in deferring the local request of local people for local air monitoring to a federal entity of any kind.”

Proponents of the Community Healthy Air Act underscore that there would be a great deal of transparency in the design of the study, which includes external review and community input. Once the air monitoring plan is designed, implementation will be conducted by the MDE. Speaking as a Maryland resident and addressing the Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs, Keeve Nachman, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said that the bill would prioritize transparency: “I would really like to highlight how transparent and objective this process will be, and I think it’s going to give all the stakeholders in the state of Maryland … the answers they need to understand whether there really is a public health concern.”

The House hearing this month was considerably more heated than the Senate hearing held in January. The Senate hearing focused on study logistics, rationale and cost, with a detour into a red herring about greenhouse gases, which Committee Chair Joan Carter Conway quickly dismissed. “This is not about greenhouse gases… this [study] is health-oriented … you’re mixing oranges and apples here,” she said.

The House hearing featured ad hominem attacks on the sponsor, Delegate Robbyn Lewis, with Delegate Otto seeking to discredit the bill because of the air pollution levels and food deserts in her Baltimore City district. (Delegate Lewis responded that a public health problem somewhere is a public health problem everywhere.) Opponents of the bill frequently repeated their message about economic growth and jobs provided by the poultry industry, and they expressed contempt for and suspicion of research. Delegate Otto complained that he preferred simpler answers to the “dissertations we’ve been hearing this afternoon,” and Delegate William Folden (Frederick County) said, “Here we are wanting to study, study, study. We’re wanting to put out all these studies until we get an answer that we like.”

Opponents further argued that the bill would impose unnecessary, perhaps crippling, regulations on the poultry industry, and voiced a concern that the bill’s real intent is to shut down the industry. The poultry industry does, in fact, play a large role in the region’s economy—but residents are pushing back. In 2016 a public opinion survey of Maryland voters, with a focus on the Eastern Shore, showed that despite their conservative political leanings, residents support more oversight of the industry.

Proponents stuck to their messages about how the bill will answer a question that might help to inform decisions regarding health and equity.

“I am a mom fighting for the future of my children, my grandchildren, and all other families who can’t fight for themselves,” said Ms. Brooks. “If this industry is truly a good neighbor, they would welcome this monitoring because they have nothing to hide.”

The Senate hearing may be watched here. The House hearing may be watched here. The bills are being reviewed by their respective committees.

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