Chicken house

In this file photo from 2009, hens at a Lancaster County poultry operation chow down as their eggs move along a conveyor belt.

Lancaster County contributes more poultry-related nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay than any other county in its six-state watershed.

That’s according to a report published this week by D.C.-based environmentalists at the Environmental Integrity Project, who highlighted concerns about manure-based fertilizer and air emissions.

It’s pollution that contributes to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the bay that can kill fish, crabs and other wildlife, they’ve said.

While the report claims that government regulators aren’t doing enough to clean waterways, Lancaster County experts said pollution-reduction projects are numerous on local farms.

“There is much work yet to do,” said Coordinator Allyson Gibson, with Lancaster Clean Water Partners. “But our communities have made incredible strides towards reducing water pollution and we stand by their current and future efforts.”

The numbers

The report looked at nitrogen pollution in 2018, listing Pennsylvania, at 10 million pounds, as the top poultry-related polluter in the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

And of all counties in the watershed, Lancaster was listed as the top poultry-related polluter with 3.3 million pounds in 2018 — about 14 % of the total 24,032,297 pounds of related nitrogen in the entire bay watershed in 2018, according to the report.

The report took into account nutrient-laden runoff from farms on which chicken manure is spread, as well as ammonia emissions from industrial-scale chicken houses, which break down into nitrogen and contribute to the pollution load, the report said.

The majority of Lancaster County’s poultry-related pollution stemmed from manure runoff, which contributed about 2,358,676 pounds of nitrogen in 2018. Another 955,417 pounds was attributable to ammonia emissions, according to the report, which cited data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Animal health priority No. 1

Chickens stick their heads out of a pen as to feed from a trough at the Farm Show on Jan 10, 2008. (Deb Grove / Intelligencer Journal)

Need for more regulations?

Within the report, its authors claim government officials, including at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have failed to properly monitor and regulate emissions.

The environmentalists offered a list of recommendations, including forcing poultry companies to install more effective pollution control systems and to pay for tree planting as a way to catch and reduce ammonia emissions. They also call for stricter oversight by regulators — a measure officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation seemed to support.

“We are encouraging farmers, poultry industry leaders, and regulators to work together to better understand the significance of this source of pollution and find ways to reduce it,” said Beth McGee, the foundation’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy. “The poultry industry continues to grow and if nothing is done the pollution created by these operations will grow with it.”

However, Liam D. Migdail, with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, pointed out that manure application already is regulated, and “many farms already plant fast-growing trees along property lines to reduce odor impacts on neighbors.”

A number of stakeholders, including poultry company officials, were unable to comment specifically on the report, explaining they did not have time to digest the 50-page document.

Environmental Integrity Pro... by Sean Sauro on Scribd

Local waters impacted

That also was true for Rachel Felver at the Chesapeake Bay program, but still, she provided some insight into nitrogen’s effect on the bay.

“Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms in the bay,” Felver said. “Harmful algae blooms block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, which are critical habitat for Bay species and help with water clarity.”

And nutrient pollution also impacts local waterways. According to figures from Lancaster Clean Water Partners, about 50 percent of the county’s 1,499 miles of stream are considered impaired.

In fact, county residents and officials are required by federal mandate to reduce their annual nutrient pollution loads — nitrogen by 11.46 million pounds and phosphorus by 468,305 pounds — by 2025.

Lancaster County farmers, including those with poultry operations, must play a part in meeting those goals, experts said.

“Farmers in Lancaster County and across the state have implemented, and are continuing to implement, practices to protect water quality,” Migdail said.

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