Fowling the Bay?: Media Reports Absolving Poultry Industry of Pollution are Premature

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Good news about the health of the Chesapeake Bay is rare, which might explain the media flurry surrounding new research that suggests pollution from poultry farms isn’t so bad after all. Representatives of the poultry industry hailed the research, implying that it proved that environmental regulations on farmers have been too stringent.

But that conclusion is premature—and even misleading, leading experts say.

A recent article by the Delaware News-Journal, reprinted in USA Today, reported that Dr. James Glancey, a University of Delaware engineering professor, maintains that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E PA) has dramatically overestimated the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay that can be traced to the poultry industry. Glancey’s work has been called “preliminary” by scientists who sit on a Chesapeake Bay Program subcommittee tasked with analyzing the results; it has not yet been published or peer reviewed.

Even so, the notion that chicken farms are not producing as much pollution as previously thought has found a welcome home on the Delmarva Peninsula, a 170-mile spit of land that encompasses most of Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia. The highly-concentrated chicken industry there processes and markets as many as 11 million birds each week.

In 2010, the EPA established a “pollution diet” for the Chesapeake Bay region, in order to restore the 64,000 square miles of watershed for the 17 million people who live within its bounds. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous enter the watershed and can cause algae blooms, which eat up oxygen and lead to the death of fish and shellfish.

Agriculture is the largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Chicken farms on the Delmarva Peninsula produce 1.5 billion pounds of manure each year, more than the annual human waste generated in New York City, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Atlanta combined.

How much nitrogen and phosphorous are in that manure is a contested question, and the answer has profound implications for the complex set of regulations governing the regional “pollution diet.” The diet mandates that farmers make certain improvements to their operations to decrease their environmental impact by 2025.

Since news of Glancey’s research broke, the Environmental Protection Agency has come under fire from some interest groups, and so too has the Chesapeake Bay Program, which runs the computer model used to assess pollution in the Bay and also to set state environmental regulations.

Delmarva poultry farmers are “hopping mad,” according to DelmarvaNow.com, because they have spent money complying with regulations to keep chicken manure from flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.  The efforts include planting cover crops and not spreading manure on frozen ground – activities they now believe are required based on false data.

Glancey, a professor of engineering at the University of Delaware’s Newark campus, based his conclusions on two sets of data.

The first analyzed nearly 4,000 “poultry litter” samples taken from farms in Delaware and Maryland that were tested by the Delaware Department of Agriculture. Poultry litter is a mixture of manure, feathers, feed, and bedding material on the chicken house floor. From 1996 through 2010, litter samples that were analyzed showed declines in phosphorous but not in nitrogen content.

This is not surprising, experts say, because during that period poultry companies such as Perdue began requiring their growers, or contract farmers, to supplement chicken feed with phytase, an enzyme that reduces the amount of phosphorous that poultry excretes.

But Glancey’s second set of data and analysis is more controversial. He weighed the amount of chicken litter produced by the “cleanouts” of 800 chicken houses. A poultry house cleanout occurs between flocks, when a farmer decides to empty some or all of the soiled bedding and manure.

Cleanout data showed that the amount of litter was markedly lower than federal estimates. In Sussex County, Delaware, Glancey estimated that 260,000 tons of litter are produced annually; the federal standard shows 1.46 million tons of litter.

Glancey then applied the first set of data to the second set of data, and concluded that for Sussex County, Delaware, levels of nitrogen in the litter were 55 percent lower than federal estimates.

“We’re not talking about being off by a few tons. We’re off by a few million tons. That’s a lot and that’s just in Sussex County,” Glancey told DelmarvaNow.

An article in the Delaware News-Journal, along with subsequent articles in DelmarvaNow (“A game-changing study for the Delmarva poultry industry”) and Fox News (“Study backs famer in pollution battles with the EPA”) implied that the vast difference in nitrogen concentration applied to the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, when in fact the analysis pertained to Sussex County only.

None of the articles mentioned that Glancey’s results were merely presented in a power point to the poultry litter subcommittee, or that his research had not yet been published or formally reviewed by other scientists.

Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee, whose agency collaborated on the research with Dr. Glancey, said he was comfortable with the News-Journal’s coverage of the data.

Although reduced nitrogen levels have not been verified by the poultry litter subcommittee, the Agriculture Work Group, or an independent peer review, the poultry farming community has seized on Glancey’s results as evidence that chicken farmers are not polluting the Chesapeake Bay as much as previous estimates have suggested.

But experts in nutrient pollution expressed doubt that Glancey’s analysis signifies a trend that can be extrapolated across the Chesapeake Bay region.

Similar data from other states show different trends in nitrogen and phosphorous.

“We do think there is a difference in poultry litter nutrient concentrations in Delmarva versus in Virginia or West Virginia,” said Mark Dubin, an agriculture technical advisor with the University of Maryland who coordinates the poultry litter subcommittee that analyzed Glancey’s results. “We also have differences represented across the region in terms of volumes [of litter] being produced.”

He added that the work of the poultry litter subcommittee was to collect and evaluate data from all three counties in Delaware, as well as look at data from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Right now the litter volume analysis pertains only to Sussex County.

In addition, Glancey’s research assumes there are no significant differences in how individual farms manage manure or bird production, despite the fact that these factors can vary from farm to farm.

For example, some poultry companies require their contracted growers to perform more than one full cleanout each year. Others require a cleanout once every five to seven years.

“There are nearly twenty different poultry litter management strategies that deal with the frequency of clean out,” said Dr. Trish Steinhilber, a University of Maryland nutrient management specialist. “It’s very difficult to make some nice clean estimations as to how much litter you are going to have [regionally], because there is too much variability as to what is going on on individual farms.”

Glancey’s cleanout data came from five different poultry “integrators,” or large companies like Perdue that hire smaller farms as contractors. Glancey developed a “normalized average value” to account for differences among farms. Mark Dubin of the poultry litter subcommittee said he had not yet seen the raw data from the cleanouts, but that the subcommittee would be evaluating it in the coming weeks.

Other factors that could impact Glancey’s results include differences in the ages of birds being raised. “The rule of thumb is that the older the bird the more nutrients they will excrete,” Dubin said. The Delaware analysis did not account for differences in the size or age of poultry across farms.

Several members of the poultry litter subcommittee agreed that even though the results from Sussex County had not yet been verified, they hoped the new research could eventually lead to more comprehensive data on commercial poultry litter across the watershed.

The federal standard for measuring poultry litter currently in use was developed on a national basis, and experts agree that a regional standard could take into account smaller-scale variations.

“Regionally developed estimates are always better than national estimates in my opinion because you are looking at local management strategies, local integrators, and your climate, as opposed to something generated nationwide,” Steinhilber said.

Leading environmental organizations in the region echoed this view.

“If the scientists look at this data and say some numbers in the [Chesapeake Bay Watershed] model should change, then indeed they should change,” said Velma Smith of the Pew Environment Group. “But you have to be transparent about when that data was collected and how, and if it’s different from one region to another, if it’s specific to a certain feeding regime, or specific to certain weights of birds.”

In Washington, the EPA is waiting for the draft report from the poultry litter subcommittee before making any judgments.

“While we await submittal of additional data needed, we are hopeful the collective data will show that industry efforts to reduce nutrients in poultry litter is having a positive result,” the EPA said in a statement. “Any decision regarding the use of this information would be made by the Chesapeake Bay Partnership.”

Once the draft report is written by the poultry litter subcommittee, it will go to the larger Agriculture Work Group for review, and then to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which has a separate review process. Only when the report has passed all levels of review by consensus can changes be made to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed model.

Conversations about updating the data began several years ago when Agriculture Secretary Kee approached academics at the University of Delaware. “I was frustrated that our universities didn’t have a handle on how much manure the industry was generating or the nutrient content of that manure,” Kee said. “We went to DPI [the Delmarva Poultry Industry] early on and asked where they thought the numbers were.”

Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc is the trade association for chicken companies operating on the peninsula.

Kee said his agency kept the Delmarva Poultry Industry updated during the collection and analysis of data. Glancey made presentations to the Agriculture Work Group and the EPA. Kee attended the meeting of the Agriculture Work Group on May 9th, when Glancey gave his updated presentation.

Three weeks earlier, on April 17th, Kee accepted an award from the Delmarva Poultry Industry, the “Edward H. Ralph DPI Medal of Achievement for a non-elected person.”

An industry news release about the award praised Secretary Kee for working on behalf of the chicken industry.

The release stated, “[Kee] is not hesitant to stand up for the agricultural community in battles with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Chesapeake Bay issues. He works with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control…to make sure state policies are not harmful to the chicken industry.”

Secretary Kee and Dr. Glancey were colleagues for a decade at the University of Delaware. According to Glancey’s CV, he collaborated on more than 25 research papers, presentations, and abstracts with Kee between 1997 and 2007.

Glancey is not a newcomer to poultry research. From 2002 – 2004, he received $48,000 from the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association for a research project to improve the survival rates of egg embryos.

As for Glancey’s work for the poultry litter subcommittee, he says he did it for free, as a service to Delaware Governor Jack Markell. He did not return a request for further information.