Health Expert Cries ‘Fowl’ on Chicken Farms; Cecil Co Council Questions Science
For the past several months, a vocal group of local residents and allies in environmental groups have protested, waved signs and flocked to Cecil County government meetings to protest a proposed new organic chicken farm near Zion that they feel will reduce their property values and cause environmental harm. On Tuesday, they brought a public health expert to Elkton to argue their case.
But the expert, Dr. Jillian Fry, an assistant scientist and project director at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, repeatedly said under questions from County Council members that scientific data was unavailable to document certain health risks or “the science isn’t there yet.” Nevertheless, Fry said, “It seems people interpret a lack of local evidence proves there is no risk and that’s not true.”
Fry noted that air pollution and emissions of particulate matter from large-scale poultry operations, such as those on the lower Eastern Shore, posed a greater risk of asthma for humans living near the farms. Large exhaust fans on chicken houses emit ammonia, “pathogens,” particulates and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), Fry said.
Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) inquired what was the asthma rate in the lower Shore counties and if they showed higher incidence of the disease than other counties with minimal poultry operations. “I don’t know what the asthma rates are,” Fry replied. Bowlsbey seemed surprised, saying, “I don’t know why you don’t know” when the health expert was using asthma risks as an argument against large-scale poultry farming.
“I haven’t looked at other possible causes” for asthma cases in lower Shore counties, Frey replied.
Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1), who holds a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine, asked Fry if there was any direct evidence that poultry farms cause “sickness” in humans. Fry replied, “The research is not really there.”
The Horst farm would be the second new poultry operation in Cecil County, which has a large dairy and cattle farming industry but which historically has not been a chicken farming hub. Perdue has already signed contracts with an Earleville area farm on Route 213 that built two new chicken houses for “organic” chickens to be sold through its Coleman organics label. The chicks are brought to the farm to be raised and when ready for harvest are trucked to an organic-updated Delaware plant for slaughter.
In the organic chicken program, birds are raised cage-free, peck around indoor open houses and, when an outdoor area has been certified as organic—a process that takes three years to certify the land is pesticide-free—the birds will be able to wander around outdoor pens as they wish. The Route 213 farm met all local zoning and health rules and complied with permitting requirements set by state environmental agencies and opened earlier this year with little fanfare.
But when Perdue signed a contract with the Horst family to convert their above-the-Canal cattle farm to an organic chicken farm with four newly built bird houses, the feathers hit the fan with homeowners who have purchased houses located in the Northern Agricultural zone (NAR). Cecil County has long had a “freedom to farm” law, designed to let farmers continue their operations even as newer residents complain of the smells, noise or other inconveniences associated with agriculture.
The 220-acre Horst farm would far exceed existing zoning laws, which require chicken houses to be located 100 feet from property lines, by setting their chickens 600 feet from the line. Zoning rules also specify that the chicken houses would have to be at least 300 feet from the nearest residence, and the Horst proposal would locate the birds 800 feet from the nearest dwelling.
Nevertheless, nearby homeowners have been beseiging the County Council with demands to impose stricter zoning rules that would be applied retroactively to the Horst property to block construction of the chicken houses.
County Council members have already declared they would not apply new rules retroactively to the Horsts, especially since the family had voluntarily far exceeded existing regulations. But members have indicated they want to research all the issues for possible new zoning rules that might apply to other future chicken operations that might not be as considerate of neighbors as the Horst family has been.
“We don’t want to be overwhelmed by chicken houses in Cecil County,” County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) observed.
On health questions, Fry disputed a Wicomico County Health Department assessment in that chicken-dense county that found no link between poultry operations and nitrate concentrations in local drinking water wells. She said that other studies have found high nitrate concentrations in soil on the lower Shore. Wicomico has over 100 chicken operations and most are older facilities built without the newer technology that is being used in the new organic chicken operations proposed in Cecil County.
“I have wells” on property he owns “in Pennsylvania that are high in nitrates and they are nowhere near a chicken farm,” Hodge observed.
Asked how she defined a large-scale chicken operation, Fry said that “because of the confinement, even one house, that to us is large scale.”
Asked what she thought would be an acceptable regulatory environment to protect the public from excessive chicken farm development, Fry said she did not have any policy she personally advocates. But, she added, county officials could “require things that the poultry industry doesn’t want to meet” so they would locate elsewhere.
County farmers who are not involved in the poultry industry have spoken out at some other meetings to voice concerns that tinkering with zoning to limit agriculture operations in the county could harm other farm operations and make it more difficult to operate or to sell their land in the future to other farmers who want to continue ag operations.
About 50 citizens attended the Council worksession and a few people placed anti-poultry farm signs next to their seats. But it was unclear if the attendees were all anti-poultry advocates or other farmers interested in the debate.