Exhaust fans ventilate a chicken house near Princess Anne, MD. Photo by Dave Harp

The Maryland Department of the Environment plans to appeal a state judge’s ruling that the agency must account for ammonia discharges to the air before issuing water permits to high-density poultry farms.
The move would bring the legal clash to the Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second-highest court.
“We are committed to advancing the science, stewardship and conservation practices that seek to reduce pollution from poultry houses,” MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said. “We are also committed to regulatory certainty in the wake of the unprecedented ruling in the lower court.”

Last year, the MDE finalized a revision to the five-year “general discharge permit” governing waste discharges into local waters from industrial-scale chicken-raising operations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subsequently accepted the changes.

But Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sharon Burrell ruled March 11 this year that state officials must also regulate ammonia released into the air, because some of it falls into waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act, namely the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Ammonia is a form of nitrogen, a nutrient that can trigger algae blooms in the Bay, creating oxygen-deprived “dead zones” where nearly no life exists. Reducing nitrogen runoff from farms is one of the top goals of the state-federal Bay restoration program.
MDE officials say that, if the state is also required to limit ammonia air emissions from poultry operations to improve water quality, it would open the door to regulating similar air emissions from a wide variety of sources, ranging from vehicles to landfills. Confusion and regulatory chaos would ensue, they say.
The circuit court lawsuit was initiated by the Assateague Coastal Trust, a group based in Berlin, MD, that has long opposed the chicken industry’s expansion on the Delmarva Peninsula. Maryland’s portion of peninsula boasts some 2,000 chicken houses, which emit gaseous ammonia through giant fans. The gas is largely the product of poultry urine.

The Delmarva Chicken Association, the region’s leading poultry trade group, applauded the state’s decision to appeal the ruling.

“We look forward to a fair-minded judicial review of a lone judge’s decision to strike down the EPA-approved Maryland [animal feeding operation permit],” Executive Director Holly Porter said. “This appeal will provide an opportunity to correct the unjustified, sudden insertion of air emission regulation into a water quality permit.”

By Jeremy Cox