The environmental advocacy group, Waterkeeper Alliance, has sued Perdue and one of its contract farmers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to hold one of America’s largest poultry producers liable for the pollution that has dogged the Chesapeake Bay for years. The lawsuit, Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc. v. Alan and Kristin Hudson Farm and Perdue Farms, Inc., has aroused passions and name-calling on both sides of the dispute.
One of Perdue’s attorneys has accused environmental groups of a “declared war against on Maryland’s poultry industry,” while supporters of the litigation accuses Perdue of using the Hudson family as “human shields.” Perdue sources chicken from over 1600 family farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and is one anchor of the region’s economy.
The poultry sector has enjoyed a massive surge in business across the United States as Americans seek healthier and cheaper sources of protein. But the industry’s massive waste has been a festering issue within the communities in which chicken farms and processing plants operate. Twenty years ago, Ross Perot livened up a U.S. presidential election as he called Arkansas governor Bill Clinton the “chicken man,” complaining that Arkansas’ job growth, and pollution, was because of Clinton’s chummy relationship with Don Tyson, founder of his eponymous poultry empire. Now the story is repeating itself on the East Coast.
The opposing sides of the Baltimore trial agree that the outcome could set a huge precedent on determining responsibility for pollution due to meat production. Claiming that Perdue is violating the Clean Water Act, Food and Water Watch’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, insists that Perdue should be responsible for cleaning up its farms’ waste. After all, if Perdue technically owns the chickens, feed and therefore benefits from the profits, then logic dictates that the company must confront the resulting waste. Many chicken farms create more waste than what can be converted to fertilizer–and Waterkeeper Alliance, Food & Water Watch and their allies claim that the scientific evidence they gathered will prove that Perdue is liable for the Chesapeake’s environmental damage. Furthermore, despite naming one of Perdue’s contractors, the Hudson’s, as a defendant in the lawsuit, Waterkeeper Alliance claims that Perdue is actually responsible for the farmers’ tenuous financial situation.
The case also has political overtones as Food & Water Watch released emails that reveal a cozy relationship between Perdue and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a rumored contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. While O’Malley attacked the pending litigation earlier this year, Purdue diverted donations away from the Republican Governors’ Association to its Democratic counterpart organization.
Purdue, meanwhile, offers little insight on its work on environmental sustainability and work within the communities in which it operates, although the company does promote a few token local projects and its most recent “community impact” report mentions a few wastewater treatment plants. The company has a huge opportunity to show that it is an engaged stakeholder in this region, one that supports many small fisherman, farmers and businesses–but so far the chicken giant is hiding behind a huge public relations machine.
Meanwhile the Chesapeake, one of the country’s most important estuaries and the economic backbone for three states, is in dire condition as nitrates and phosphorous are killing the bay. The task for Waterkeeper Alliance is a daunting one: the presiding judge has already expressed skepticism over the group’s scientific claims, and has even hinted he would order it to pay Perdue’s legal costs if the company wins the lawsuit.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.
Image courtesy Food & Water Watch.