BALTIMORE -- A trial with potential implications for Maryland's poultry industry began Tuesday with a lawyer for poultry giant Perdue claiming that an environmental group was looking for a way to "get Perdue" when it sued.
The New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance brought the lawsuit now being heard in federal court in Baltimore. The group claims that a Maryland farm raising chickens for Perdue polluted a nearby river, violating the federal Clean Water Act. The group says Perdue, which owns the chickens and monitors their growth, should be responsible for the pollution.
But lawyers for the chicken farmers and for Perdue, which is based in Salisbury, say there's no evidence of pollution. They say the farm operates just like others and that it would be unprecedented and catastrophic to the industry if its ordinary practices are found to pollute. Perdue, meanwhile, says that even if the farm is polluting, the company shouldn't be responsible for environmental violations at its contract farm.
During the trial's opening Tuesday, George Ritchie, an attorney for Alan and Kristin Hudson, the farmers being sued, said the Waterkeeper Alliance was looking for someone to sue "no matter what" and that the Hudsons had done nothing wrong.
Michael Schatzow, a Perdue attorney, said the environmental group wants to end the poultry industry in Maryland and several years ago "declared war on Maryland's poultry industry."
"Plaintiff wants to get Perdue, and Alan Hudson and his wife Kristin are just collateral damage to them in this battle," Schatzow told U.S. District Judge William Nickerson at the opening of what is scheduled to be a three-week bench trial.
But Jane Barrett, a law professor at the University of Maryland representing the Waterkeeper Alliance, gave her opening statement standing next to photographs of fans that ventilate the two chicken houses on the Hudson's farm in Berlin -- fans she said contribute to pollution. She said the farm is responsible for pollution in a river that ultimately empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
"You can't see this kind of pollution. It's in the water. It's dissolved ... So what we have to rely on is scientific data," Barrett said, citing water test results.
The case is being watched by both environmentalists and the poultry industry. There are more than 1,660 family farms that raise chickens for the five poultry companies that operate on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Both sides agree on the trigger for the lawsuit, which was filed in 2010.
In 2009, the Waterkeeper Alliance flew over the Hudson's farm and spotted what they believed was evidence of pollution. Passengers saw what they thought was an uncovered pile of chicken manure and later found water sampled in the area contained high levels of bacteria.
The pile was not chicken manure, but the Waterkeeper Alliance says chicken waste is getting into water in another way. They blame fans that ventilate the farm's chicken houses, which house approximately 80,000 chickens, and say chicken waste is also dragged outside on the shoes of people who enter the houses.
Lawyers for Perdue and the Hudson family say the chicken manure isn't getting out in great enough amounts to pollute. They point out that more than 40 cows live on the farm and their manure is not collected but sits out in the field.