In July, the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) released the findings of a new ambient air quality monitoring project focused on the state’s Lower Eastern Shore. This effort was announced more than a year ago as a partnership between the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI), a trade group for just what it sounds like, and MDE to monitor ammonia and particulate matter emissions from industrial poultry operations.
The number of registered poultry CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, in Maryland has increased from seven in 2009 to 544 today, and the vast majority are located on the state’s Lower Eastern Shore. For years, residents have complained of foul odors emanating from nearby CAFOs, in addition to nausea, eye and throat irritation, and respiratory ailments. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to high levels of ammonia — a compound emitted when chicken litter breaks down, making it a hazard common to poultry houses — as well as particulate matter, which can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Under the Clean Water Act, CAFOs are regulated as point source polluters and must acquire a permit that limits and requires monitoring of nutrient discharges in waterways. However, the story is different for air emissions. Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to require CAFOs to measure and control air emissions. Having the authority and actually exercising it are two different things, unfortunately. Due to powerful lobbying from the agricultural industry, the agency has only exercised that authority in a handful of cases, and air emissions from CAFOs remain largely unregulated. The implications of this regulatory gap are particularly concerning because an abundance of public health research demonstrates a link between community proximity to CAFOs and pneumonia, asthma exacerbations, lung disease, and respiratory infections.
Beginning in 2017 and every year since, grassroots activists, public health experts, and environmental advocates have pushed for a Maryland “Community Healthy Air Act” that would require MDE to study, monitor, and identify air pollutants emitted by CAFOs while assessing the associated public health risks of those emissions. Oftentimes, these facilities are located near communities of color and low-income communities, compounding environmental justice threats. The state does not actively monitor the air around these industrial-sized facilities, and neighboring frontline communities have been left in the dark about the accompanying health risks.
Unfortunately, proponents of the Community Healthy Air Act have only been met with suffocating opposition from the agricultural industry, including DPI, which claims that “Eastern Shore air is healthy and clean” and that CAFOs don’t carry any associated health risks. If DPI’s claims were true, you’d think they’d welcome a bill that calls for studies of nearby air quality because those studies would confirm the assertion, but instead, the industry is strongly opposed. Indeed, in 2019, one of the main oppositional talking points that thwarted the legislation was that MDE and DPI would voluntarily be conducting a one-time air quality study on CAFOs, so legislation was unnecessary. But, as proponents noted at the time, that effort wouldn’t include the clear, science-based parameters and legislative oversight of the Community Healthy Air Act. While bill language has slightly evolved each year, gaining more support from legislators and community members alike, it has not moved or been voted on in the relevant Maryland General Assembly committees.
Without the Community Healthy Air Act, Lower Shore residents were left with an industry-sponsored monitoring effort that had many feeling skeptical, at best. According to MDE, four air monitoring stations were set up, with two located on the Lower Eastern Shore: one in Pocomoke City at a “high poultry house density” location and the other in Princess Anne where there are “very few poultry houses nearby.” The two other monitoring stations were placed in downtown Baltimore City and the Horn Point Lab near Cambridge where there are no industrial poultry operations. Hourly data was collected between April and June 2020 and continues to be collected in real time.
A summary of MDE’s findings for April through July show that average hourly concentrations of ammonia at all four sites were below the agency’s one-hour air toxics screening level for ammonia, which is 350 parts per billion (ppb). For example, the maximum hourly concentration of ammonia at the Pocomoke City station was 177.8 ppb. The maximum ammonia concentrations appeared to increase significantly at Pocomoke City and Princess Anne in July, compared to the preceding months (the maximum ammonia concentrations for April through June were 75.6 and 23.2 ppb, respectively). Furthermore, these values exceed the lowest documented odor threshold for ammonia of 40 ppb.
While the results may provide relief for some, further investigation suggests otherwise. While the Pocomoke City “high density” monitoring station is in close proximity to several poultry houses, the monitor is effectively protected by swaths of forest surrounding it (see image below). Trees can act as buffers, capturing ammonia and other pollutants on their leaves. MDE itself notes that “trees and man-made structures might interfere with the quality of the data.” Meanwhile, the Princess Anne monitoring station, placed in a “low density” area, is more than a mile away from the nearest poultry house and similarly buffered by forest. As a result, it is unsurprising that the hourly ammonia concentrations at this station were similar to those of the Horn Point station, where there are no poultry operations.
In a response to comments from concerned residents and advocates, the agency stated that “the objective of MDE’s project is not to measure emissions or to assess impacts from individual farms, but to determine the quality of the air that most residents of the Lower Eastern Shore breathe.” What the agency fails (or chooses not) to acknowledge is that many CAFOs on the Lower Eastern Shore are sited next door to people’s homes, and many people do not have the luxury of a forest to buffer emissions. Furthermore, by focusing on the “air that most residents breathe,” MDE ignores the disproportionate impacts of CAFOs on Black families and other communities of color. If the agency sought to understand the impact of poultry houses on the air residents breathe, it would have placed monitors in residential areas that communities have flagged as a concern.
Without science-based efforts like the Community Healthy Air Act that hold water and carry some sense of accountability, Lower Shore communities will continue to be betrayed by an agency that is supposed to protect the public and restore the quality of Maryland’s air and water.
On a practical level, the legislation should be re-envisioned so that it doesn’t continue to meet the same obstacles year after year. Maryland’s Clean Air Act regulations should also be strengthened with regard to CAFOs in order to protect neighboring communities on the Eastern Shore from the impacts of these operations. Dense, forest-like buffers, should be mandated around CAFOs to mitigate the alarming amounts of ammonia pollution coming from them. The state should also study the cumulative impacts of CAFOs in areas where they are heavily concentrated, and if an outright CAFO moratorium is not instituted, a cumulative impacts analysis should be conducted prior to the construction of any new CAFO on the Eastern Shore.
These are just a few of the solutions Maryland could engage in to assure frontline communities on the Eastern Shore that the air they breathe is truly healthy and clean.