BERLIN - The Waterkeeper Alliance has decided not to appeal a federal judge's ruling in favor of Perdue Farms Inc. and the Hudson family farm in a lawsuit filed by the New York-based environmental organization.
With the three-year-old case having come to a close, some think the alliance should have to pay the legal fees the farmers and the poultry company incurred in their defense.
The organization filed the case in 2010, alleging that the Lower Shore farm of Alan and Kristin Hudson allowed chicken waste runoff into the Pocomoke River, and then the Chesapeake Bay, polluting the water and violating the federal Clean Water Act, Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, said.
"If the plaintiffs had prevailed, it could have dramatically changed how the chicken industry operates," Satterfield said.
Satterfield said the case could have made chicken companies like Perdue responsible for the manure on the farms with which they contract. He said that potential change was opposed by both Perdue and the chicken farms.
"For the growers, [manure] is a valuable asset," Satterfield said.
He said aside from the manure having fertilization qualities, which is good for the farms, any not used can be sold, sometimes getting up to $25 a ton.
If Perdue would have been required take responsibility for the manure, then the company would have had to hire environmental workers to go out to all the farms for quality checks.
But Satterfield said U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson ruled the Hudsons were not in violation of the Clean Water Act, and that the waterkeepers did not produce enough evidence to prove otherwise.
Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said there really wasn't much in the case the environmental group could have appealed.
"I'm glad this case is not preceding any further. I'm glad they're not further running up the legal bills of the innocent farm family they were after," Connelly said.
Connelly said the alliance was trying to change agriculture law through the court system, instead of through legislative process. She said it unsuccessfully tried to get a bill in its favor in the years before the case started.
For Connelly, the waterkeepers didn't have a good case to begin with, and they continually changed their story and evidence throughout the trial to try to win the lawsuit.
"They used an ends to justify the means throughout the case," she said.
While Perdue is seeking up to $2.5 million compensation in attorney fees from the case, Connelly said the Hudson family should be compensated for their fees, too.
She said the judge had called it a bad case with bad evidence multiple times, and the environmental group did not complete its due diligence.
"The environmental community should have to pay when they do this," said Connelly, adding that it nearly forced the Hudson family into bankruptcy.
State Sen. Richard Colburn, R-37-Mid-Shore, has been vocal about the case in the past. He agrees the Hudsons should be compensated for their legal fees.
"I am pleased that after almost three years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal costs, the waterkeeper lawsuit against the Hudson family farm and Perdue Farms has finally run its course," Colburn said.
Colburn said the family filed for $500,000 in legal fees and costs, and both Perdue and the Hudsons' motions are due by Feb. 7.
Last year, Colburn said he suggested a plan in the General Assembly that has been put in motion directly addressing the existing legal needs in farming and rural communities. He said it also calls for engaging in careful, community-based planning on how to best serve the legal needs of farm families and rural communities on a long-term basis.
The project, of which $250,000 was appropriated last year, includes 30-minute advice and drop-in legal consultation sessions in rural communities, community-based legal needs assessment and joint planning, and workshops and education programs based on the needs of the families.
Satterfield had some final advice for the chicken industry moving forward from this court case: "It's now time for all persons in the chicken industry to turn their focus to do the best job as possible on environmental stewardship," he said.