In a case that may someday serve as a legal landmark, the anti-industry activist group Waterkeeper Alliance lost and lost big-time in a federal lawsuit they hoped would bring the poultry industry to its knees.
Judge William M. Nickerson of the U.S. District Court for Maryland produced a 50-page opinion this week stating that the group “had failed to meet its burden” of establishing that waste from poultry growout operation owned by Berlin, Md., farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson contaminated a drainage ditch that ultimately flows into the Pocomoke River, which empties into Chesapeake Bay. Nickerson also rejected the argument that Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, for whom the Hudsons are contract growers, should assume liability for any pollution.
The plaintiffs in the case included the Assateague Coastal Trust, an environmental group working to preserve open space and maintain water quality in the Chesapeake Bay area, and the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic. A spokesperson for the law clinic suggested that the plaintiffs would likely appeal Thursday’s ruling.
A proxy fight
This is a battle that has gone on for almost three years, and what started out as an action against an (alleged) violator of the Clean Water Act became a proxy fight for the forces opposed to livestock production in what’s known as the Eastern Shore, the lands east of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Delaware. Perhaps of greater significance was the implied legal challenge to the contract status of virtually all poultry producers, a model that has been in place now for decades.
Industry defends that structure because it streamlines production and allows farmers entry to the business without raising large amounts of capital. Critics decry the system because they contend that the major poultry processors—Perdue, Tyson Sanderson, et al—are merely shielding themselves from liability by claiming that none of their growers are corporate employees.
Both arguments have some merit, as did both sides in this court battle.
Don’t get me wrong: Had the court’s decision gone the other way, this would have been a major setback for hundreds of farmers and growers across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.
For one, it would have dealt a severe blow—maybe not a knockout punch—but certainly done damage to the fortunes of the family-owned growout operations across the Delmarva region. If there is one single factor responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of small, locally based packing plants across the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, it was the threat of what the liability a lawsuit over a food-safety incident would do to those small businesses.