Chicken Industry Clogging Chesapeake
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From the issue of education we turn now to the environment. A body of water unites most of the people who are voting in Tuesday's Potomac primary, the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary.
Mr. KEN STAVER (Scientist, Wye Research and Education Center): And the bay's sort of at the bottom of the drain of a huge area of land. So everything that goes on on the land is affecting the bay.
HANSEN: Scientist Ken Staver is with the Wye Research and Education Center, which sits on the bay's eastern shore. NPR's Dan Charles went there to talk to him for this report.
DAN CHARLES: The Chesapeake Bay is not a wasteland. It's beautiful actually. It is ailing, but many of its symptoms, the disappearing underwater grasses, declining crab and clam populations, aren't visible to a casual visitor. And the biggest cause of its ailment isn't obvious either. The Bay is choking on plant food, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous dissolved in the water. And where do most of those nutrients come from? Ken Staver says farmers spread them mostly in the form of chemical fertilizers on their fields.
Mr. STAVER: That's what you're looking at here is one of the grain fields that would produce something that goes into poultry feed.
CHARLES: Or cattle feed or human food, but in this area that grain with all its nitrogen and phosphorous goes mostly to big poultry operations, giant warehouses filled with tens of thousands of chickens. So as operations are concentrated on the flatland on the eastern side of the bay, most of those nutrients end up in manure, big stinking piles of chicken you-know-what, that no one wants to haul very far.
Mr. STAVER: The issue is when you concentrate animal production, you bring in feed for those animals. And then the economics have not been there for that waste, the nutrients in that waste to be redistributed back to the crop land where the grain came from.
CHARLES: Instead it's been spread on fields close to cattle barns or chicken houses where it wasn't really needed. From there too much of it washed into the Bay. Staver says the solution to this part of the Bay's problem is send that manure, hundreds of thousands of tons of it, back to the fields where the nutrients originally came from.
It's simple, at least in theory, but also inconvenient and expensive.
Mr. STAVER: You know, we're going to do some things that are going to cost a little more than what we've done in the past. I mean, we've been looking for pain-free solutions and I think we've run through most of those. And from here on it's going to bite a little bit and people are going to have to decide whether or not they want a clean bay in theory or whether they're willing to pay for it.
CHARLES: There has been some progress, Staver says, the state of Maryland is now helping to pay for shipping some of that chicken waste out of the region. And farmers now are required to show the government, in writing, how they will manage animal waste so it doesn't pile up and wash into the Bay. Farmers says they're doing more than almost anyone to clean up the Bay.
But environmental groups aren't convinced. Because in Maryland, where the region's poultry operations are concentrated, those manure handling plans are kept confidential. Last week one environmental organization, the Water Keepers Alliance, sued the state, demanding access to those documents. The organization says it needs to know what farmers really are doing.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
HANSEN: Voters in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., will pick their party nominees on Tuesday, February 12. A note that NPR News will have special coverage on the Potomac Primaries on Tuesday, February 12, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time with NPR hosts Melissa Block and Michele Norris.
Today, however, all eyes will be on the Democratic caucuses in the state of Maine where 24 delegates are at stake for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
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