March 24, 2010

Chicken manure lawsuit stirs vigorous Senate debate

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Senate’s grand march to pass Gov. Martin O’Malley’s $32 billion budget Tuesday night was delayed slightly when it found a pile of alleged chicken manure in its path.

The longest and most contentious debate in a five-hour session came over an item withholding just $250,000 from the University of Maryland law school until it submitted a report on the lawsuits filed by its legal clinics.

The dispute boils down to a question over whether a pile of waste on an Eastern Shore farm came from chickens or the people of Ocean City.

Eastern Shore senators maintained the law clinics, composed mostly of law students, were unfairly targeting the huge poultry industry in their area. The school’s mostly Democratic defenders said the demanded report was a challenge to academic independence and free speech.

“I think this takes us down a very dangerous road in terms of academic freedom,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a constitutional law professor at American University.

For students, choosing cases to pursue “is an exercise of their academic freedom,” he said, adding that the law school clinic is “basically the largest pro-bono law firm in the state.”

“This is something straight out of Communist China,” charged Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, a statement that drew groans from other senators.

Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Lower Shore Republican on the budget committee, had stirred the pot by inserting language in the budget demanding information on all the lawsuits the clinics had filed in the last five years. He wants to know who the clients were, how much money was spent and where it came from.
“I don’t think we should be afraid of information,” Stoltzfus said. “Information doesn’t hurt.”

He and the other lawmakers from the Eastern Shore had met with O’Malley on what they considered heavy-handed environmental regulation that was hurting economic development on the Shore. They had raised the issue in an earlier meeting with Environment Secretary Shari Wilson reported in MarylandReporter.com.

Stolztfus said Shore lawmakers were concerned “particularly that the poultry industry is being harassed” and that the suits were another factor encouraging poultry magnate Jim Perdue to move his processing operations to North Carolina.
“The small family farmer cannot afford to defend themselves,” Stoltzfus said.

This is where the chicken manure comes in. Earlier this month, according to a story by Jennifer Hlad in Capital News Service, the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance announced they are suing Perdue Farms and a farm owned by Alan and Kristin Hudson in Berlin. They charge that the farm had a pile of exposed chicken manure that was leaking bacteria into the Pocomoke River.

In the Senate debate, Sen. Brian Frosh said the farmers “put dirt and straw over it so it wouldn’t be discovered.”

But both the Capital News Service and the Delmarva Farmer newspaper quoted the a Department of the Environment spokeswoman saying that the agency had confirmed that it was Ocean City sewage sludge piled up on the farm and not chicken manure.

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, vice chair of the budget committee, emphasized the money was only being held until the law school submitted a report, a common procedure in the budget.

“It’s just a report,” Kasemeyer emphasized.

But that was not enough to sway 12 senators who voted against the amendment requiring the report, with 35 others voting for it.

In the end, Stoltzfus agreed to Frosh’s proposal that the report only cover the last two years of work by the environmental law clinic, not the clinics assisting other clients.

Still riled after the debate ended, Sen. Richard Colburn, a Middle Shore Republican who has had a long-running dispute with the waterkeepers, observed: “Even a turkey buzzard knows the difference between chicken manure and human waste.”