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Environmentalists disappointed by Perdue lawsuit

WEST OCEAN CITY — While the effects on area farmers from a pollution lawsuit filed against a local chicken farmer were profound, they are also being felt by the environmental groups fighting for clean water on the Eastern Shore.

The advocacy group Waterkeeper Alliance, connected to the local Assateague Coastal Trust, sued chicken industry giant Perdue Farms and farmer Alan Hudson of Berlin, alleging a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The federal judge on the case ruled in favor of Perdue and the Hudsons.

“We were obviously disappointed by the ruling,” said Kathy Phillips, ACT’s Assateague Coastkeeper. But, she maintained, the judge acknowledged there was pollution coming from the Hudson farm.

“He acknowledges that those discharges get to the ditch, and the ditch does connect to the Pocomoke River, and that the Pocomoke River is impaired. He just doesn’t hold anybody accountable for that, which is a disappointment,” Phillips said.

Jane Barrett, the attorney who handled the case in court for the Waterkeepers, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling because her client had not made a final decision on whether or not to appeal the case.

Part of the delay in announcing the group’s decision on an appeal was the flooding of the Waterkeeper Alliance’s offices in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy.

The Waterkeeper Alliance did not return phone calls regarding their plans.

Phillips said ACT and other groups learned some things through the trial that they would use going forward.

“It appears that the judge was looking for a little more facts, a little more specific sampling,” Phillips said. “We didn’t meet the standard that he was looking for … in my opinion, it came down to a battle between the expert witnesses, and the judge believed the other witness better than ours.”

In his ruling, Judge William Nickerson wrote it appeared to him the goal of the Waterkeeper Alliance was to “seriously alter if not abandon (chicken) operations on the Eastern Shore.”

“I respectfully disagree with the judge on that,” Phillips said. “The goal is to make companies like Perdue and Tyson and Mountaire responsible for their waste stream. The main goal of this lawsuit was to stop the pollution coming off of this farm.”

Phillips pointed to the state of Maryland, saying she believes it has failed to enforce its policies.

“What did come out of this trial was that we learned that the state of Maryland is not properly overseeing the nutrient management program. Both agencies that are charged with that — the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Agriculture — have failed,” Phillips said.

She added that the lawsuit has helped raise awareness of the manure management issue.

“We have gained a lot of information and learned a lot through this trial so that we can move on with these goals of stopping poultry manure pollution to our waterways.”

Alan Hudson, the farmer who was the co-defendant in the alliance’s lawsuit, has said, “This (lawsuit) has really drove a wedge between farmers and environmentalists.”

Dave Wilson Jr., executive director of Maryland Coastal Bays, a nonprofit environmental group not connected with the Waterkeeper Alliance, said he disagrees, to a point.

“It may be true that there are some environmental organizations and farmers that aren’t getting along,” said Wilson. “I really feel strongly that hasn’t been the case with our program. I was with Jim Perdue (at) the end of December on his farm for two hours, doing some birding with him.”

Wilson said he meets with Perdue’s science person “every couple of months. It’s important to remember they don’t deny that there’s a nutrient problem. They’re just trying to find ways to fix it that’s practical, especially on a global market.”

“On the one hand, I understand the frustration with trying to get nutrients reduced soon,” Wilson said. “We know we have a problem with nutrients in the coastal bays. That’s our No. 1 problem.”

Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, who grew up on a farm in Harford County and currently is a member of the Senior Bay Scientists and Policymakers, attended the opening and closing arguments of the trial in U.S. District Court and said he studied the judge’s comments and that he is very concerned about the bays.

“These big powerful conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, if they really want to do something, they have to go down there (to the Maryland legislature) and make transparency for the nutrient management plans,” he said.

“I was very sad that the trial was lost,” Tydings said. “I believe that the facts that were brought out showing the fundamental weaknesses will in the long run be very helpful to the conservation movement and to farmers. Because farmers don’t want to pollute. They want to do what is right.”