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MOOREFIELD - The South Branch of the Potomac River winds slowly from the Potomac Highlands through the rolling hills and farmlands of Hardy and Hampshire counties.Residents of Moorefield and Petersburg drink South Branch water. Farmers irrigate their fields with river water. Their kids swim near the bright green algae that hugs stream banks.Tourists flock to the South Branch for some of the best fishing in the East. Some gaze at bald eagles during a train ride through a narrow canyon called The Trough. Others canoe past hundreds of poultry houses that line the valley. On any given day, about 17.5 million chickens live here, more than 240 times the five-county area's human population.The river flows north into the main stem of the Potomac and east to Washington, D.C., where 2.5 million residents drink from it. The river empties into the Chesapeake Bay.Six months ago, environmentalists warned of a frightening development: Chicken manure has contaminated the river so badly it is one of the 10 most endangered waterways on the continent."The headwaters of the Potomac, which determine much of the overall health of the entire river, are seriously endangered," the D.C.-based group American Rivers charged in an April report."The relatively undisturbed South Branch, which provides much of the river's water supply, is clogged with excrement from corporate poultry farms and cattle feedlots."The story made front-page news in The Washington Post. A lengthy Sunday article June 1 said poultry pollution threatened drinking water in the nation's capital and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.West Virginia officials quickly fired back.The day of the American Rivers announcement, state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass called the group "headline hunters" who "did not use facts in the rhetoric they presented."Two days after the Post article, U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., took to the House floor.He spoke of the efforts of one of his district's biggest employers to clean up "whatever pollution there may be" in the Potomac.U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., scolded the Post a week later for describing the "putrid smell that wafts through downtown Moorefield from the 340,000 birds slaughtered daily in the region's largest chicken plant.""This is an area that was settled in the early 1700s and contains a federally designated historic area," Byrd said. "Moorefield's antebellum homesteads and streets are enriched by the presence of hard-working family farmers, who not only earn a real day's wage, but also represent the backbone of our nation's economy and spirit of community."Two months later, an August outbreak of a toxic microorganism killed fish in two Maryland streams and made fish in a Virginia river sick. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening pointed to poultry manure runoff from farms on the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore as the cause. Scientists say the incidents highlight the need for poultry growers and other farmers in the region to reduce pollution.West Virginia officials insist poultry farms here are not polluting - at least not very much. Even if they are, state officials say, plenty is being done to clean up the problem.A Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation, including a review of public records and interviews with experts, shows otherwise:* Levels of bacteria in Potomac Valley streams are higher than considered safe for swimming or boating, according to recent government studies.One-third of the samples taken from the South Branch, the Lost River and their tributaries during an 18-month study by the U.S. Geological Survey contained unsafe concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria. Fecal coliform itself doesn't make people sick. But if it's there, so are other bugs that can cause fevers, chills, dysentery and more serious illnesses.A smaller study by the state Division of Environmental Protection, to be published later this year, will document similar fecal contamination.* The poultry industry is at least partly to blame, and may be the major culprit.No one can say for sure how much of the Potomac's pollution comes from chicken farms, as opposed to cattle farms, leaky septic tanks or other sources.The USGS, however, found that the streams that are most polluted with bacteria were those that flow through areas of the South Branch and Lost River with the biggest concentrations of chicken houses and cattle feedlots. And while cattle production in the region has remained fairly constant over the last decade, the number of chickens raised has tripled.* Poultry farmers are not regulated, and most do not voluntarily follow recommended guidelines for controlling water pollution.The DEP has never made a poultry farm obtain a permit that would limit its pollution. Instead, the agency relies on good-faith efforts by farmers.But three-quarters of the 350 poultry farmers in the five-county area around Moorefield do not take recommended steps to keep manure from running into streams, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."Overuse of commercial fertilizers and poultry litter wastes are prevalent in the Potomac River tributaries and as such are primary contributors to the river's problems," the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service concluded in a report last year."If improper management of land resources continues, water quality degradation will become worse over time and the aquatic environment will become even more stressed."The state's poultry capitalPotomac Valley residents along the South Branch and Lost River have farmed for generations. Families survived off the food they grew. They sold some of their products to make extra money. In Hardy County, poultry has long been one of the staples."We cannot imagine a farmhouse today without chickens or the cheery call of the old rooster at the break of day," Phil Conley wrote in the 1931 edition of his widely used textbook, "West Virginia Yesterday and Today.""The farm flocks are usually small," Conley wrote. "The aim is to supply the family with delicious fried chicken for the table and with eggs for home use. And perhaps there is a surplus to send to market to provide pin money for the housewife."But the potential for a huge industry, not just scattered family farms, was always just under the surface."This seems a small business, but the hens and their products are worth more to the state each year than all our hogs and sheep put together," Conley wrote."West Virginia has possibilities of becoming a great poultry state," he wrote. "This industry will continue to grow as long as we have a demand for poultry products at home and convenient markets in the surrounding cities."In the last decade, these possibilities became realities.Industry giant WLR Foods, formerly Wampler-Longacre, bought the half-century-old Rockingham Poultry processing plant in Moorefield in 1988. Company officials spent more than $50 million over five years to expand the plant. They hired 800 new workers.Now the plant can slaughter, cut up, and package 1.7 million birds each week. Workers process 1 million pounds of meat a day, enough to fill a quarter-million buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken.From farms to agribusinessArea farmers were eager to feed the WLR plant's new hunger for chicken. Farmers who already raised poultry borrowed money and built more chicken houses. Farmers who weren't in the business saw the chance to make extra money and went into debt building their own poultry houses.In 1991, before WLR expanded, there were 570 poultry houses in Hardy and the four surrounding counties, according to the USDA. Today, there are at least 870, and perhaps as many as 1,000, reports show."The commercial poultry industry has grown steadily for the last 10 years and has experienced rapid expansion since 1991," Linda Smith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a 1994 report."The industry is one of the fastest growing segments of West Virginia's agriculture economy, exceeding beef production in sales for 1992."Poultry houses, stretching 400 to 500 feet long, line the Potomac Valley. Each house is home, at any one time, to 20,000 to 30,000 birds. In some places, they sit just yards away from streams, with little buffer to keep runoff out of the water. In others, poultry houses are packed into narrow hollows or crammed against hillsides, leaving little room for proper manure disposal.Along U.S. 220, signs bearing the WLR logo - a proud farmer surveying his fields and barn - are planted in almost every driveway, marking each farm that grows birds for the company.As poultry production grew, the nature of poultry farming in the Potomac Valley changed.Most West Virginia chickens and turkeys no longer come from family farms, in the traditional sense. Today, the state's poultry comes largely from huge commercial operations.Last year, West Virginia produced 90 million broilers, the type of chickens people eat. That's triple the annual production just a decade ago, according to state agriculture reports. But a few dozen growers, some with 10 or 12 poultry houses, raised one-quarter of those birds, according to state surveys. A grower with a dozen houses can raise almost 2 million birds a year.Poultry farmers today are called contract growers. WLR and other processing companies hire them to raise chickens or turkeys.Under these contracts, the companies haul in truckloads of young birds. The companies own the birds and provide all of the feed. About every two months, the companies send trucks back to pick up the grown birds and haul them off to be slaughtered.Where there are chickens ...Growers are left with houses full of manure.They have a week or two to clean out the houses for another load of birds. Growers dig roughly 30 tons of litter, a mix of manure and bedding, out of every house for every flock they raise.In all, the region generates at least 150,000 tons of litter a year, according to the USDA. Some estimates range as high as 350,000 tons a year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. That means chickens in the Potomac Valley generate 15 or 20 times the amount of solid sewage every year as the residents of Charleston.Some poultry growers spread the litter on their fields for fertilizer. Some sell it to other farmers, who fertilize with it. Others do both. Most growers, though, have to store their litter temporarily until the season or weather is right for it to be spread.Experts say storage sheds are needed to keep litter from running off into streams when it rains. But only one-quarter of the 350 growers in the Moorefield area have adequate storage sheds, according to the NRCS. One-third simply dump their litter in uncovered piles, where rain can easily wash it into nearby creeks, according to a 1994 state survey.And litter isn't the only waste poultry growers have to worry about.Roughly 2 to 6 percent of chickens die before they're big enough for slaughter. Poultry growers in eastern West Virginia have to get rid of 2 million dead birds every year, according to the NRCS.Some growers bury the birds in pits. Others send them to WLR's "rendering plant," where they are made into pet food. Still others dump the dead birds in piles of litter, where they decay and are eventually used as fertilizer.Only half of the poultry growers in the South Branch valley have plans and equipment to adequately dispose of their dead birds, according to the NRCS.WLR owns all of the birds. But like other poultry processing companies, it takes little responsibility for proper waste disposal. That's left up to poultry growers. And in West Virginia, taxpayers will eventually pick up most of the tab.Poultry houses/cattle feedlotsBy 1994, concern about poultry pollution had increased in the Potomac Valley. Officials from the NRCS, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hired the U.S. Geological Survey to find out if the streams were being polluted.Melvin Mathes, a USGS hydrologist, sampled streams in the area for 18 months between March 1994 and August 1995.He looked for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous compounds.High concentrations of nutrients can cause algal blooms in local streams, or downstream in the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. Algae can suck up oxygen from water, choking fish and other aquatic life.Mathes did not find excessive amounts of nutrients. But he noted that, "many of the streams sustain significant algal growth during the summer, growth that may be associated with nutrient loading to streams."He also looked for and found bacteria that can indicate the pathogens that make people sick.Overall, fecal coliform levels exceeded state standards in one-third of the samples Mathes took from the South Branch, the Lost River and its tributaries. Mathes also found that three streams that contained the highest bacteria levels flowed through areas with the Potomac Valley's largest concentrations of poultry houses and cattle feedlots.In his May 1996 report, Mathes wrote that it would be almost impossible to figure out whether it was the poultry houses or the cattle feedlots polluting the streams. Most of the places there are poultry houses, there are also cattle farms, Mathes said. So it's hard to separate what pollution comes from which type of farm, he wrote.But, Mathes wrote, the fact that you can't pinpoint pollution sources does not mean poultry farmers should not keep their manure from running into streams."Allowing manure or litter easy access to a stream in a given basis could potentially cause greater bacterial concentrations than in other basins where agriculture is more intense, but better management practices are in use," Mathes wrote.$205 million a yearPeople who drink from the South Branch or swim in one of its tributaries aren't dropping dead. They're not getting sick in droves either.Even if they were, it's possible that few people would know about it. Bacteria from poultry-polluted water cause symptoms that are easily confused with viral flu or food poisoning. They are rarely diagnosed by a doctor. And it is only when the sick, elderly, young children and infants are exposed that they can be fatal.Algae thrives in the South Branch of the Potomac River between Petersburg and Moorefield. Scientists believe nutrients from poultry manure runoff make the river ripe for algal growth.Still, bacteria from poultry manure can cause serious problems. Fecal coliform can indicate, for example, the presence of cryptosporidium, the bacteria that killed 100 people in Milwaukee in 1993."A high potential exists for contraction of waterborne illnesses in the Potomac Headwaters because of the widespread presence of bacteria throughout the watershed and heavy dependence on the streams for drinking water and for water contact recreation," the NRCS said in its 1996 report.Drinking water treatment plant operators in the Potomac Valley have reported changes in water odor and taste, primarily from nutrients in the water, the NRCS report said. These changes could eventually increase the costs of water treatment, the report said.The NRCS also noted that tourists contribute $205 million a year to the Potomac Valley economy."Water dependent forms of recreation, such as canoeing, swimming, and fishing are focal points of recreation in the Potomac Headwaters, but such activities also require participants to continuously come in contact with water," the NRCS said."An outbreak of waterborne illnesses linked to recreating in Potomac tributaries would severely impact the local economy by loss of tourism dollars."A bit of an exaggerationWhen American Rivers made its April announcement, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition described the Potomac situation as "essentially third-world conditions along the headwaters of our nation's river."Pam Moe-Merritt, the coalition's conservation program director, said later that the group may have gone too far."I guess we chose those words because they are sexy," Moe-Merritt said in September."But I do know there are high levels of fecal coliform in the river. I don't think we exaggerated that," she said. "I think that we could have said it a little more gingerly."State DEP officials are more blunt. They say environmentalists have blown the Potomac's water quality problems out of proportion.Mike Arcuri, an environmental resources supervisor in the DEP Office of Water Resources, examined results of the agency's long-term water sampling at Springfield, about 35 miles downstream from Moorefield on the South Branch.Generally, the samples show no increase in fecal coliform bacteria levels in the river since sampling started in January 1975, Arcuri said.Arcuri admits samples taken from Springfield don't show that water in Moorefield is clean. But he thinks the samples show poultry pollution isn't damaging water quality downstream."I'm trying to look at the big picture - the Chesapeake Bay and the nutrient loading there and West Virginia's contribution to it," Arcuri said. "This data shows that there hasn't been a major impact, at least not yet."A holistic approachThe DEP, the USDA and the state agriculture department have cooperated with poultry farmers and processing companies to try to clean up the industry's pollution.Farmers can get grants from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop "nutrient management plans," which are blueprints for how to properly dispose of poultry litter. If farmers agree to follow these plans, the NRCS will provide money to help build litter storage sheds and dead bird composting facilities.At Sen. Byrd's prodding, Congress chipped in more than $4 million in federal money over two years to give farmers half their construction costs. The state DEP agreed this year to provide low-interest loans for another 40 percent. The state Soil Conservation Agency will give farmers the other 10 percent.State agriculture officials are also trying to find new ways to use and dispose of litter.In one demonstration project, they compost the litter into mulch people can put on their gardens. In another, litter is fed to microscopic bugs that, by eating it, create methane and fertilizer that should contain less harmful bacteria than raw poultry waste. In yet another project, state officials run a toll-free telephone line to connect poultry farmers who have excess litter with farmers in other parts of the state who want to buy that litter to fertilize their fields."Basically, this is becoming a holistic plan for the watershed," said Lance Tabor, executive director of the Soil Conservation Agency, a part of the state agriculture department."When you look at what we've put in place and the short time in which we've been able to put those things in place, I think it's a credit to the state," Tabor said in May."We will be working on this for years."West Virginia politicians and state agency officials praised these efforts as proof environmentalists and the Washington Post had the story all wrong.Byrd told fellow senators the Post missed "the real story of worth - the exemplary efforts by a non-partisan coalition of public officials and West Virginia family farmers to balance economic interests with environmental goals."Rapid growth of any industry usually is not achieved without problems," Byrd said in June. "However, these problems have been identified and efforts are under way to ameliorate these consequences of expansion."Wise told his fellow House members that, "I want to reassure people that several things are being done to reduce this risk and keep the waters clean."No one is taking this problem lightly in West Virginia," Wise said, also in June. "I believe there is a coordinated effort already under way. If it is not enough, it will be made enough."A Gazette-Mail review of public records, and interviews with poultry experts, found indications it may not be enough.Most of the programs listed by Wise and Byrd are demonstration projects. They currently can't handle the tens of thousands of tons of chicken manure produced in the South Branch Valley every year, according to experts involved in the projects.For example, the litter-eating bug machine (called the Poultry Waste Energy Recovery, or POWER, project), digests 1,000 pounds of litter a day. That's about 0.12 percent of the amount generated in the Potomac Valley. The project has cost $2 million so far. WLR officials have said it's currently not economically feasible on a large scale.The toll-free litter hotline has helped farmers move only 5,700 tons of waste since it was started in July 1996. The amount of waste handled by the compost demonstration project is so low that officials haven't even kept track of it.The most promising program is the cost-sharing effort to help farmers build litter sheds and dead bird composters.To date, 80 percent of the eligible farmers in the Moorefield area have filed applications for the program. Federal officials had only hoped for a 50-percent turnout.Even through this program, many farmers will not have environmental protection structures built for three to five years, or even longer, according to government records."It's a slow process," said Ed Kesecker, an NRCS district conservationist in Moorefield."I think there has been some real progress, but to get all the way is going to take a long time," Kesecker said. "We will be working on this for years."Andy Walker, a state conservation agent who works in Moorefield, said, "To say nothing is being done isn't right."Maybe there are some things that need to be worked on some more, but it's not being ignored," Walker said in August. "But it's something that can't happen overnight. It's going to take a few years."Some experts with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service believe the current cleanup plans ignore two of the most troublesome aspects of the poultry industry.First, poultry houses along some eastern West Virginia streams produce far more waste than there is land in the area for waste disposal. Second, poultry litter contains much more phosphorous than other fertilizers, so using it on cropland may overload the land with phosphorous and cause long-term land health or water quality problems."You can put this stuff in sheds so it reduces the runoff, but you still have an increasing volume of the stuff," said Dan Ramsey, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Elkins."There is still too much for that watershed over time," Ramsey said. "And just exporting it to another place, to create another problem, isn't an answer."Write a letter to the editor.