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EDITORIAL: The chicken dilemma

July 15, 1998

EDITORIAL: The chicken dilemma

Can Maryland be a business-friendly state and protect the environment at the same time? That's the question Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has to answer, as his administration considers whether to fine America's top chicken producer for allegedly violating state rules on chicken-waste disposal.

Tyson Food, Inc. might be able to afford the $10,000-per-day fine, but business groups warn that it would send the wrong message to an industry already irked by new waste-disposal rules enacted this year, following the pfisteria fish kills of 1997.

Pfisteria outbreaks are thought to be triggered by excessive nutrients in water, nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Both are present in chicken feces and can enter the water through farm runoff, if too much fowl manure is spread on crop fields.

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Tyson's case is a bit different, involving sludge, the wastewater from chicken processing, a substance which can also be rich in nutrients. The firm says it had been injecting the sludge six to eight inches into the ground and taking steps to keep it out of surface water runoff. State environmental officials say Tyson was warned it was in violation of state law months ago.

Both Champe McCulloch of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Robert "Rocky" Worcester, of Maryland Business for Responsive Government say that a large fine could send the wrong sign to prospective industries. McCulloch says that instead of helping companies comply, the state environmental department focuses only on enforcement.

Whether Tyson deserves a large fine depends on whether the alleged violations were willful, or honest but misguided attempts to comply with the law. But the real problem is not one company's practices, but the fact the poultry industry produces much more manure than is necessary for crop production.

The state urgently needs to use its resources, like the University of Maryland, to find alternate uses for manure. If old tires can stoke the kilns at a cement plant, there ought to be something comparable that can be done with the one chicken by-product that most of us would rather not think about.

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