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Perdue Chicken Out to Pluck Public Interest Lawyers

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Perdue Chicken Chairman Jim Perdue is retaliating against environmentalists -- and their lawyers -- who filed filed suit against the poultry giant and one of its contract chicken farms on March 2 for violations of the Clean Water Act. From The Washington Post:

In Maryland, messing with Big Chicken can bring big trouble. The latest case study is playing out in Annapolis, where the state Senate wants to impose greater scrutiny on the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic. The reason? Apparently, it's the law clinic's pro bono work for an environmental group that is suing an Eastern Shore chicken farmer and the poultry giant Perdue Farms.

For decades, livestock producers, many of whom are under tightly controlled contracts with Perdue, have allowed large amounts of toxic run-off from animal waste to flow into the streams and rivers that feed Chesapeake Bay. The March 2 suit links Perdue to an 80,000-bird factory farm operation that supplies the chicken processing giant. The farm, like all Perdue suppliers, is contractually bound to follow all Perdue directive concerning the care of chickens.

After getting complaints from Perdue, several Maryland state legislators set out to slash funding for the University of Maryland law school, which supplied the lawyers who filed the suit, as reported by the Capitol News Service:

The chairman of Perdue Farms called a lawsuit against one of the company's contract farms "one of the largest threats to the family farm in the last 50 years," and asked Maryland's Eastern Shore delegation to help.

"There are a number of additional family farms on the list," Perdue said. "They (the environmental groups) really have no interest in water quality. They have one interest: litigation, lawsuits."

To characterize a tightly controlled farm operation that supplies Perdue chicken with its raw product as a harmless pastoral enterprise is a clever bit of disinformation by Perdue who hopes to avoid responsibility for the pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.

Eastern Shore Delegation Chairman D. Page Elmore, R-38A-Wicomico, said the delegation will raise the issue with Gov. Martin O'Malley when they meet with him this week.

"I don't want to see the day when our chickens come from Delaware and Virginia," Elmore said.

Delegate Jim Mathias Jr., D-38B-Worcester, said he is "extremely distressed" by the lawsuit. "This is a fundamental industry in our district," he said. "We are with you, man."

The result of Perdue's call to arms from lawmakers sympathetic to Big Chicken is a threat to cut funding for the law school by $250,000 to $750,00. The Maryland legislators, out to punish the environmental law clinic's lawyers for pursuing polluters, demanded that the clinic compile a list of its clients over the past two years or see savage cuts.

Maryland State Senator Jim Brochin says the move is "something straight out of communist China." And Rena Steinzor, a law professor at Maryland and former director of the environmental law clinic, called it "an effort to chill and intimidate us for taking cases that cause trouble in Annapolis."

Environmental Working Group senior scientist Rebecca Sutton, PhD, who studies the impact of modern agriculture  on the Chesapeake Bay, said:

The people of Maryland deserve clean water. They also deserve legislators who will stand up for their interests instead of rolling over for Jim Perdue.

An editorial in the Baltimore Sun makes no bones about that paper's stance on the issue:

What's particularly galling is that the assault on the law school's academic freedom and the independence of its fledgling lawyers is all because some students had the temerity to help some Eastern Shore residents and environmental groups go after polluters.

One might assume a lawsuit aimed at reducing pollution into a Pocomoke River tributary would be regarded as a good thing, but the one filed earlier this year on behalf of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance names Perdue Farms as a defendant. Perdue is the nation's third-largest poultry company, with $4.6 billion in sales -- and a lot of political muscle in this state.

Chairman Jim Perdue has said publicly that he fears more such Clean Water Act enforcement lawsuits will be filed against Perdue growers and is making noises about moving some of his business out of state (which would seem puzzling, since the federal Clean Water Act standards are national and lawyers to enforce them are known to exist beyond Maryland's borders).

The proper response to such threats ought to be to tell Mr. Perdue that while the state is proud of what he and his family have accomplished, protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and creeks from the harmful effects of nutrient-rich farm runoff (whether from chicken manure or sewage sludge used to fertilize crops) is just as important to this state's economy as chicken processing.

No doubt if the Maryland law students were filing frivolous actions that had little chance in court, Perdue, with its deep pockets and out-of-town lawyers, would simply shrug and stomp them out. But the worry is clearly that the facts and the law are not on their side. The Maryland Department of the Environment has investigated the incident that prompted the lawsuit but taken only modest enforcement action to date, announcing Friday that the farm's owner will be fined $4,000 for improperly storing sludge.

If lawmakers were genuinely curious about the clinics, they might have made a phone call before they started taking the school's budget hostage. If they had, they'd discover the clinical law program was ranked eighth in the nation last year by U.S. News & World Report and that it provides an invaluable service as the largest provider of free legal advice to the state's disadvantaged. It should be regarded with pride rather than suspicion; all Maryland law students are required to do some pro bono work on behalf of the community, a rarity in academia.

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