BALTIMORE- A federal judge in Baltimore on Thursday ruled in favor of a Worcester County chicken farmer in a pollution lawsuit that had broad implications for Maryland's poultry industry.
In a 50-page written decision issued three weeks following closing arguments, U.S. District Court Judge William M. Nickerson declared that the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance failed to proved its case against Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, Inc., and contract chicken growers Alan and Kristin Hudson of Berlin.
In his decision, Nickerson ruled that the Waterkeeper Alliance failed to meet its burden of establishing that the Hudson Farm and Perdue had repeatedly discharged and continued to discharge pollutants into a drainage ditch that ultimately flows to the Pocomoke River, which is a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Lawyers for Perdue and the Hudson Farm argued the farm operated similarly to others and there is no evidence of pollution from the farm's poultry operations. They had described the lawsuit as vindictive and without merit.
Following Nickerson's ruling, Perdue spokesperson Julie DeYoung said in a statement that the Waterkeepers Alliance had put an "innocent farm family through hell and tried to drive a wedge between farmers and responsibile environmentalists."
"As Judge Nickerson pointed out in his summary judgment letter, they went looking for someone to sue, and when they found a large pile on the Hudson Farm that they thought was chicken manure, they thought they had their ‘bad apple'," DeYoung further stated. "The pile turned out to be legal biosolids from nearby Ocean City. But the Waterkeepers persisted with their lawsuit anyway, changing their arguments throughout the case."
In a statement, Marc Yaggi, executive director for the Waterkeeper Alliance said, "We are disappointed and disagree with Judge Nickerson's decision. We have demonstrated a strong case in which the facts and the law support our allegations that Perdue and the Hudson chicken CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) continually polluted a river that ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay. We will review the decision and consider an appeal in this matter. Regardless of this decision, the reality is that the Chesapeake Bay and waterways around the country are dying off from pollution and runoff from large industrial factory farms. This case highlighted serious flaws in the state's implementation of the Clean Water Act."
DeYoung said that Perdue and the Hudsons were "thrilled" with Thursday's ruling, which she called a "resounding victory for Perdue and farm families everywhere."
"We congratulate the Hudsons on their long-overdue exoneration," DeYoung said. "We are also pleased that the judge upheld existing law that safeguards the contractor relationship and confirms the independence of thousands of family farms who choose to raise poultry and livestock. This is a good day for Maryland and for agriculture."
The judge's ruling marks the end of a lawsuit filed in March 2010, which went to trial in October. There is no word yet on whether legal fees will be awarded to the defendants. That is expected to be decided in a separate ruling.
Editor's note: The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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