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Maryland Legislators Dodge Questions about Poultry Industry

By: Christine Grillo

“I consider myself an environmentalist, but also our job is to provide jobs for people… And unfortunately for your interests, the chicken farming industry provides a lot of jobs on the Eastern Shore.” This was the response from Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D–27) when asked if he would support legislation to halt the expansion of industrialized, “mega” chicken houses on the Eastern Shore. “Whether you like it or not, agriculture is still the Number One business in this state. You can’t cripple the industry,” he said.

A quick detour: According to the Maryland Department of Commerce, agriculture doesn’t even figure into the top five industries in the state. (Aerospace and defense account for $33 billion in gross state product, while agriculture accounts for $2.7 billion. After aerospace and defense, the biotechnology, manufacturing and transportation industries far outpace agriculture.) Maybe Senator Miller meant to say that agriculture is the number one business on the Eastern Shore.

Michael Busch (D–30), House Speaker, echoed Miller’s statement, saying that we have to find “a middle ground between environmental concerns and farming operations.“

Yesterday the Maryland state assembly began its 90-day session, and kicking it off was a summit convened in Annapolis by radio host Marc Steiner of WEAA and sponsored by the Maryland Daily Record and in part by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF). During the summit, Steiner first interviewed Governor Larry Hogan and took questions from the audience, then did the same with Senator Miller and Speaker Busch.

The question of whether the legislators would support a moratorium on expansion of poultry operations on the Eastern Shore came first from Monica Brooks, a resident of Salisbury, Maryland, and a member of . Brooks is concerned about the growth of operations by companies like Tyson, Mountaire Farms and Perdue in Wicomico County, and the placement of these larger-than-ever operations atop the Paleochannel, which is Salisbury’s main source of water. A second question came from Margaret Barnes of Moms Across America, Eastern Shore chapter, also about water and air quality. Both women are concerned about the fact that there is no air monitoring or water testing in their communities. Barnes suggested during the Q&A session that the Clean Air Act should be revised to protect communities from poultry operations.

Brooks is concerned about the “ginormous” chicken houses being located closer to communities in Salisbury, many of which she says are poor and African-American, and she was frustrated by Miller and Busch’s lack of response to her question. “He [Miller] said we need to get support from our delegates for legislation [that would halt the expansion]. That is a ridiculous comment. If we could get this done locally, why would we be here [in Annapolis] questioning him?” she said, after the Q&A. “My question is, will you or will you not block the legislation when it comes your way? Because it’s coming.”

Barnes, also a Salisbury resident, says her big ask is for air monitoring. “We’ve had breathing problems ever since we moved here from Annapolis,” she said. Brooks, who moved to the Shore 10 years ago from the West Coast, told me about her personal (and obviously anecdotal) observations: “Until I moved here, I never saw so much cancer. I see it in adults and children all the time out here. And the asthma is through the roof.”

Both women are part of a larger, unnamed coalition* focusing on curbing the size of the poultry houses and managing their placement. Brooks says that she sees a trend for farmers to cram bigger houses, “mega-houses,” as she calls them, on the smallest possible parcel of land, and she’s afraid it will be the standard. “They’re now putting four mega-houses on the same parcel of land that they would have never put two regular size houses on before,” she said. The farmers are “encouraged,” she says, to do so in order to break even. “’Encouraged’ is the nice way of putting it,” she says.

Brooks and Barnes believe that the approval of super-concentrated operations will open the floodgates and become the model on the Shore. The coalition has not been able to get support from local delegates and senators in their communities, which is why they asked Miller and Busch point-blank if they would support a moratorium on the expansion. They expect to submit legislation one way or another.

Claire Fitch of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reminded the President and the Speaker of a recent poll conducted on behalf of CLF showing that 84 percent of Eastern Shore residents are in favor of a bill to require poultry companies to pay for the removal of excess manure from farms, to which Senator Miller responded, “Seventy percent of the people want to ban fracking. Is it the right thing to do? No. It affects two counties [Allegany and Garrett] where there are no jobs whatsoever …”—in other words, what Marylanders want doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. (Another quick detour: The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation reports that in November 2016 the unemployment rates for Allegany and Garrett counties were 5.2 percent and 4.9 percent. Counties with higher unemployment rates include Baltimore City, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester. The statewide unemployment rate for that month was 4.1.)

Earlier in the summit, Carolyn Hricko of CLF asked Governor Larry Hogan if he had plans to address the problems embedded in the poultry contracting system. The governor said that he would like to sit down with all parties, including CLF, and discuss the issues.

The Baltimore Sun article covered the summit, focusing primarily on the partisan hostility on display there, but did not mention the discussions about farming or fracking.

*The coalition is composed of Concerned Citizens Against Industrialized CAFOs, Moms Across America Eastern Shore chapter, the Wicomico NAACP, Assateague Coastkeeper, SRAP, Food and Water Watch, and Circle of Leaders. With weekly meetings every Sunday, each organization pursues its individual goals but comes together to focus on size and placement.

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