The chairman of Perdue Farms called a lawsuit against one of the company's contract farms "one of the largest threats to the family farm in the last 50 years," and asked Maryland's Eastern Shore delegation to help.
Jim Perdue, chairman and CEO of Perdue Farms, said no lawsuit would ever have been filed if state agencies would "do their job."
On Tuesday, the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance announced they are suing Perdue Farms and a farm owned by Alan and Kristin Hudson in Berlin.
The environmental groups say the farm illegally discharged "harmful pollution" into the Pocomoke River.
Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said the dispute began when she flew over the Hudson farm and saw what she believed was a large pile of chicken waste sitting uncovered. She took samples of water downstream of the pile, and said the results showed high levels of bacteria.
Maryland Department of the Environment officials said the pile was actually Class A sewage sludge human waste that has been treated at a wastewater treatment plant and is used as fertilizer. Their water tests also found high levels of bacteria, but the department has not said whether the farm violated any regulations or if it will take any action.
Perdue said the MDE should have acted more quickly to grant required discharge permits, and that the lag time created a "void," opening the door for potential lawsuits against farms.
The MDE has regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that went into effect January 2009. Farms must have a certain number of animals and discharge wastewater or contaminated runoff to be considered a CAFO.
These farms are required to get a discharge permit. The permits were not available before Dec. 1, 2009, because of a legal challenge by the Assateague Coastkeeper, the Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups.
Under previous rules, only a handful of farms qualified as CAFOs. But with the new regulations, about 500 farms including the Hudson farm have submitted applications for the discharge permit. MDE's Web site says it could take 180 days to process permit applications.
"You won't see (lawsuits against farms) happening in Delaware," Perdue said. "I never thought I would ask for more government intervention."
But Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the groups could have brought the lawsuit against the Hudson farm even if the farm had a CAFO permit, because the lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act in the farm's production area. She said Delaware farms are also subject to the act, and may even be less protected than Maryland farms because Delaware does not have a federally approved CAFO program.
Perdue also said the MDE should have done testing at the Hudson farm earlier, which could have negated the need for a lawsuit.
The environmental groups filed a 60-day intent to sue notice in mid-December, and MDE officials immediately went to the farm to investigate, said Stoltzfus.
Initially, the inspectors were denied access to sampling, but they were able to take photos and gather visual evidence on three days in December, Stoltzfus said. Inspectors took samples in January that showed high levels of bacteria, but the department has not finished analyzing the results and cannot discuss them further, she said.
The analysis can often take several months, she said.
Perdue did not comment on whether he thought the Hudson farm had violated any laws, but said he is worried about the legal costs to the family and to other farm families.
In a conference call Tuesday, Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland School of Law's Environmental Law Clinic, who is involved with the suit against the Hudson farm, said she could not comment on any potential lawsuits against other farms.
But Perdue said he thinks there are more lawsuits coming.
"There are a number of additional family farms on the list," Perdue said. "They (the environmental groups) really have no interest in water quality. They have one interest: litigation, lawsuits."