On March 4, I joined community members and advocates from Assateague Coastal Trust, Center for a Livable Future, Environmental Integrity Project, Food and Water Watch, and NAACP to testify in favor of Maryland's House Bill 1312. The bill, introduced by Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery County), would place a moratorium on permits for new or expanding concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) in the state. The legislation would apply to "industrial poultry operations," defined as operations that produce 300,000 or more broiler chickens per year. It was introduced with strong support from community members and environmental and public health advocates hoping to pump the brakes on the seemingly unmitigated growth of poultry CAFOs, especially on the Eastern Shore.
The environmental and public health harms from CAFOs are nothing new to Eastern Shore residents. As stated in CPR's testimony, the expansion of CAFOs on the Delmarva Peninsula is a barrier to Maryland meeting its obligations under the Bay TMDL (total maximum daily load). Modeling shows that agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient pollution in the Bay from Maryland and the watershed as a whole. Data on nutrient loads indicates that the Eastern Shore has made the least progress in reducing phosphorus pollution and that nitrogen loads in the region have actually increased since Bay states agreed to the TMDL's pollution reduction goals.
In addition, a breadth of public health data shows that nutrient runoff from CAFOs contaminates groundwater, which many Eastern Shore residents rely on for drinking water. CAFOs also increase worker and community exposure to air pollutants that can cause or worsen respiratory health conditions. During the House hearing, Wicomico County resident Monica Brooks expressed concern for her daughter and granddaughter, who both suffer from asthma, and a new facility that went up next to her granddaughter's school playground. Another area resident, Margaret Barnes, shared that after moving to Salisbury a few years ago, her family began suffering from sore throats. Her son, previously healthy, was constantly afflicted with respiratory health issues. As a result, her family moved back to Annapolis earlier this year.
To add insult to injury, the effects of the climate crisis, such as sea-level rise and flooding, exacerbate the air and water quality impacts of CAFOs. Maryland's current and proposed stormwater pollution permits for CAFOs do not address how increased precipitation affects the pollution-removal efficiency of required controls, even though the state has already acknowledged to EPA and the public that this climate impact is undermining efforts to restore the Bay. Floodwaters may also damage CAFO pollution controls or cause spills that contaminate drinking water sources. Despite worrisome flood projections, Maryland's CAFO permit does not consider these impacts, either, and the state continues to permit new facilities in locations that are already at risk of flooding.
At the hearing, the opposition sought to refute the breadth of public health data and claimed the legislation would destroy Maryland's economy. However, recent data suggests the economic output attributable to the state's agricultural sector is lower than most Marylanders might think. A 2018 study by Salisbury University economists found that the agriculture industry contributed $3.3 billion to the state economy and supported 23,878 jobs, amounting to less than 1 percent of the state's GDP and contributing less than 1 percent of jobs. Every job is vital to the person who holds it, her family, and her surrounding community, but continuing to allow CAFOs to expand creates problems that outweigh the likely benefits.
While the fate of this bill remains unclear, CAFO moratoriums are gaining traction. Similar legislation passed in North Carolina and was introduced in Iowa. In 2019, the American Public Health Association published a policy statement supporting moratoriums on new and expanding CAFOs. Unless and until Maryland puts regulatory measures in place to mitigate the aforementioned effects of CAFOs, it's up to the legislature to act.