CALVERT — The Zion Acres concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) once again heads back to the state for review, after concerned neighbors argued that it fails to make adequate protections for local waters under Maryland guidelines.
It’s a similar argument that sent Galen and Crystal Horst’s plans to house thousands of chicken on the family farm back for a contested administrative case hearing nine months earlier. Keith McKenica, a founding member of the Calvert Neighborhood Alliance (CNA), said that’s because the Maryland Department of the Environment is still not following its own procedures.
McKenica and the CNA, made up of neighbors of the Horst farm and local environmental advocates, are the two parties that requested contested case hearings in both cases.
“We filed again because we want the MDE to follow their procedures in how they approve this, because what happened in the past is they just rubber stamped it,” McKenica told the Whig. “We still have environmental concerns, and they weren’t answered when the MDE decided to settle this the last time.”
The Horsts originally planned to house 151,000 chickens per flock in an organic chicken operation in a contract with Perdue, but the MDE pulled their general discharge permit last year. That decision came after a Maryland administrative law judge determined that MDE was too lax on its own regulations regarding a proposed poultry farm in Worcester County — and ended the hearing process started by Calvert Neighborhood Alliance.
In February, the MDE granted the Horsts final approval on revised plans, which now would not allow the chickens outdoors. In quick response, McKenica and the CNA requested another hearing to review the project’s comprehensive nutrient management plan, which details how discharge leaves the property.
David Beste, representing both parties in this matter since 2017, argued that the Horsts’ permit does not meet standards to protect water quality and that ammonia mostly likely will discharge into nearby waters.
State standards require CAFOs to be set back 100 feet or have a 35-foot vegetative buffer between it and the waters of the state, according to the court filings. Beste maintains neither maps in the Horsts’ plans demonstrate it meets that requirement, with an unnamed tributary of the Little Northeast Creek somewhere between 50 and 125 feet from the proposed CAFO.
The poultry CAFO is also expected to generate 1,199 tons of manure, according to documents filed with the state.
Plans filed by the Horsts show that manure will be exported to a nearby grain farm, which is permissible under state regulations, and would be stored in a manure shed in the meantime.
“The northern side of [the proposed CAFO] is in close proximity to an unnamed tributary [of the Little Northeast Creek] … Manure scattered around the production area, particularly during cleanouts and bird removal, presents a high likelihood of direct discharge of wastewater into waters of the state,” Beste wrote.
While it’s apparently unclear from the Horsts’ plans with the state whether they are continuing with an an organic chicken operation, Beste also argued that its manure storage plans were at times contradictory.
The Horsts are also required to build a 1,400 foot windbreak to assist with the removal of particulate matter discharged from fans. But Beste argued that MDE failed to make a proper environmental analysis, since there is no attempted calculation on the amount of ammonia the CAFO will produce.
Estimates of ammonia emissions factors are relatively consistent in Delmarva and range from 0.47 grams to 1.18 grams of ammonia per bird per day, according to Beste.
With 830,500 birds per year, the Zion Acres CAFO would “increase the nutrient load to the waterbody and the Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote in his filing.
The contested case hearing has yet to be set, extending the already lengthy period of time the Horsts have had to wait to put birds on their property. The family started the process back in 2016, and have endured public criticism by the CNA on a regular basis.
The Horsts have not responded to Whig requests for interviews in many months, but Cecil County Cecil County Farm Bureau President Mike Kincaid said that their plans are based on proven science and facts.
“We will continue to support the Horst family and their right to farm,” Kincaid told the Whig. “For this association to keep at this, it’s getting to the point of ridiculousness.”
Kincaid pointed out that the Zion Acres CAFO has their setbacks pushed further back along with tree buffers. He added that the science on the record shows that poultry CAFOs do not cause any health issues.
Other proponents from the farming community argue that CAFOs are a new target for “not in my backyard” strategies, stifling development of any kind and ignoring the need for new farming practices. Cecil County is a “right to farm” area, which deny residents the ability to file nuisance lawsuits for accepted farming practices.
“Some of those practices may change, because farmers have to make their farms more viable to survive,” Kincaid said. “None of us are in this to get rich. But we’re true stewards of the environment and the soil, and we shoulder the burden of feeding the county. But we have bills to pay.”
For his part, McKenica said his focus is making sure that the Zion Acres Farm is “done properly.”
“As long as this is done, we want to make sure it’s the most environmentally safe place it can be,” he said. “We are not against chicken houses. We are not against farmers. We want to make it as safe as it can be so it benefits the whole community.”
Council President Bob Meffley and resident Councilman Al Miller have publicly spoke in their support of the Horst family, including taking some of their concerns to State Sen. Steve Hershey (R-Upper Shore) weeks ago.
Miller, who sits on the Cecil County Farm Bureau meetings as a council representative, said that the farmers are “doing everything we can as as far as helping” the Horsts.
“I asked the Maryland Farm Bureau representative that when she met the governor to remind him that agriculture is big business in this state and we need these guys to function,” Miller said during the March 3 meeting.
Meffley applauded Galen Horst’s patience with the state’s process, as his CAFO permit approval process is now entering in its third year.
“He doesn’t get excited. I’d been ready to shoot somebody by now, but not him,” Meffley said in the same meeting. “As Al said, agriculture is big business and it’s very important to Cecil County.”
McKenica agreed that the entire process has stretched on too long, but he pointed out that the flaws lie with MDE. He argued that MDE did not do its due diligence after people brought up their concerns during a public hearing in December.
“The process is flawed. We brought up concerns and as far as I can tell it wasn’t addressed. They didn’t make any changes to the permit, so anyone can get one,” he said. “It’s a very archaic, slow system.”
But for Kincaid, he feels frustrated on behalf of the Horsts, who should have had chickens in their poultry houses by this point.
“It’s just amazing to me that there’s a small number of people that can cause such a headache and a delay over this,” he said.