VIMS study on Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore casts doubt on pollution connections but draws from small pool of data

By Jeremy Cox,

Fresh evidence collected in a corner of Virginia where chicken farm construction has boomed in recent years casts doubt on one of the most enduring criticisms of the industry: that the operations contaminate local streams with nutrients and harmful bacteria.

In Accomack County, VA, the epicenter of the poultry industry on the Delmarva Peninsula, land owners have built 218 poultry houses since July 2014. (Dave Harp)
In Accomack County, VA, the epicenter of the poultry industry on the Delmarva Peninsula, land owners have built 218 poultry houses since July 2014. (Dave Harp)

Virginia Institute of Marine Science study found no “smoking gun” to suggest a link between chicken farms on the state’s Eastern Shore and downstream pollution, said Richard Snyder, the report’s lead author.

His samples revealed a mixed bag of results. Streams near poultry sites typically had higher amounts of nitrogen and bacteria associated with animal guts than those not affected by farm runoff. But they also had lower ammonia and phosphorus counts.

Because no strong pollution links emerged one way or the other, Snyder and co-author Paige Ross wrote, the information “does not suggest stormwater runoff impacts from poultry operations.”

Poultry industry leaders embraced the findings as proof that modern stormwater management practices are paying off. Chickens produced for the region’s meat-packing companies are raised inside large, shed-like “houses,” and their manure is stored in covered buildings until it’s ready to be used as fertilizer on nearby cropland.

“What we’re doing seems to be working,” said Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade association.

Environmentalists applauded the VIMS researchers for trying to answer water quality questions that have long loomed over the industry. But they are raising questions about the study’s usefulness.

“I think we’re hesitant to make any drastic conclusions from it,” said Joe Wood, a Virginia-based scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Every little bit of data helps, but from our perspective, it’s hard to interpret this very difficult issue from a small pool of data.”

The Snyder and Ross report relies on samples taken at three different times — one during dry weather last July, another after a heavy rain later that month and a final one during a November drizzle. That’s not enough to draw conclusions from, Wood said.

The researchers took water samples at about 40 spots along ditches and streams where they crossed beneath roads. Wood said he would have liked to have seen them taken at the outfalls of the facilities. Taking them farther downstream all but ensures that pollution concentrations will be diluted and other factors, such as other pollution sources, will come into play, he added.

The study doesn’t make clear the exact location of the poultry houses within the examined watersheds or whether they were in full operation, said Sue Mastyl, a board member of the nonprofit Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council. It also doesn’t say why the sampling sites were chosen. “It would seem to me that to draw any conclusions at this point is premature,” she said.

Snyder described the analysis as intended “mostly for local information purposes.” He doesn’t plan to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. It has too few samples to garner serious consideration for publication, he said.

He had no funding outside of money he could scrape together from his own budget. And he didn’t have time to travel very far. But he wanted to do something, he said, amid growing scrutiny of the poultry industry.

“This has been a big issue since I got here in 2015,” said Snyder, director of the VIMS Eastern Shore Laboratory in Wachapreague. “The first question I got asked was where do I stand on the poultry issue. I was kind of reluctant to get into it in the beginning.”

In Accomack County, the industry’s epicenter on the narrow peninsula, land owners have built 218 poultry houses since July 2014, according to the county’s planning department. Accomack had 254 chicken facilities when the building boom started.

The surge prompted the county’s elected leaders to pass a raft of protections that required farmers to plant buffers around their properties and build farther away from existing housing developments. Local outcry also persuaded state environmental officials to begin enforcinggroundwater withdrawal limits at the large operations.

The construction of new houses appears to be tapering off. Since the beginning of 2018, the county has seen just 11 houses approved for development.

Studies like the one conducted by VIMS will help show whether the new state and local regulations are working, said Jay Ford, an outreach coordinator for the CBF in Virginia. The slowdown in construction, he said, gives lawmakers an opportunity to examine whether more needs to be done to protect residents and the environment.

The VIMS study concentrated on the southern half of Accomack, where much of the new construction has taken place. Even though the industry’s activities happen largely indoors, Snyder said he was concerned that air vented by the houses’ giant fans might be spreading ammonia and contaminated dust that could be deposited into streams.

For the most part, he found low amounts of ammonia in the water. Nitrogen levels spiked above the safe limit on 16 of 58 samples, but there was no difference in the concentrations whether they were downstream of a chicken operation or not, according to the study.

Snyder said he hopes to continue sampling to see if those trends continue. But, he added, “If anything was going to show up, I think it would have in one of those three events.”

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...