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River Contamination from Sludge Brings on Lawsuit

The chairman of Perdue Farms called a lawsuit against one of the company's contract farms "one of the largest threats to the family farm in the last 50 years," and asked Maryland's Eastern Shore delegation to help.

Jim Perdue, chairman and CEO of Perdue Farms Inc., said no lawsuit would ever have been filed if state agencies would "do their job."

Last week, the Assateague Coastal Trust and Waterkeeper Alliance announced they are suing Perdue Farms and a farm owned by Alan and Kristin Hudson in Berlin. The environmental groups say the farm illegally discharged "harmful pollution" into the Pocomoke River.

Assateague Coastkeep-er Kathy Phillips said the dispute began when she flew over the Hudson farm and saw what she believed was a large pile of chicken waste sitting uncovered. She took samples of water downstream of the pile and said the results showed high levels of bacteria.

Maryland Department of the Environment officials said the pile was actually Class A sewage sludge, human waste that has been treated at a wastewater treatment plant and is used as fertilizer. Their water tests also found high levels of bacteria, but the department has not said whether the farm violated any regulations or if it will take any action.

Perdue said the MDE should have acted more quickly to grant required discharge permits and that the lag time created a "void," opening the door for potential lawsuits against farms.

"You won't see (lawsuits against farms) happening in Delaware," Perdue said. "I never thought I would ask for more government intervention."

But Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the groups could have brought the lawsuit against the Hudson farm even if the farm had a CAFO permit because the lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act in the farm's production area. She said Delaware farms are also subject to the act and may even be less protected than Maryland farms because Delaware does not have a federally approved CAFO program.

Perdue said the MDE should have done testing at the Hudson farm earlier, which could have negated the need for a lawsuit.

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