Playing chicken with local industry

After controversy about the prospect of large poultry operations with multiple chicken houses (up to a baker’s dozen in one case) as well as concern over the paleochannel that runs near the Salisbury area, County Executive Bob Culver organized a public meeting held earlier this evening to discuss some of these concerns with a number of state officials. Ten representatives, mainly from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) but also representing the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), were made available to answer questions from a large audience of onlookers.

Culver assured the audience that there were “no predetermined outcomes from this forum,” stressing that the idea was to explore the impact these operations would have on groundwater and the paleochannel, along with the possibility of airborne toxins. Culver noted that a Daily Times editorial penned by local activist Judith Stribling called on us to be “determined to avoid polarization,” and the crowd inside complied.

Outside? Well, that was a different story.

I shared this on social media, noting the anti-poultry zealots had arrived. Yet that band of perhaps three dozen was no more than a fraction of those inside. And it’s a sure bet that many thousands more will be alerted to the results of this meeting on local media.

Needless to say, once moderator Greg Bassett of the Salisbury Independent opened up the questions, which were written by audience members and passed to the front of the room, we had a lot of queries about how the operations would affect the water supply as well as the disposition of the natural by-products of the poultry.

In fact, the first question out of the chute was on how the PMT regulations were affecting the capacity of the land to handle manure. Dave Mister of the Department of Agriculture told those gathered that “we feel there will be adequate land to apply manure.” One thing he didn’t add was that much of the lower Shore has reached its saturation point for phosphorus, so that waste would need to be transported.

But the main thrust of the questioners regarding the waste itself was the effects it would have on peoples’ health. There were no “cancer clusters” being caused by these operations, said Dr. Clifford Mitchell of DHMH. Asthma from airborne particulates could be an issue, but that depended more on the individual and poultry operations couldn’t be blamed as a blanket cause.

The only possible issue could be nitrates in the water supply, which is regulated by the federal EPA to prevent what’s called “blue baby syndrome.” There is no regulation for phosphorus, added John Grace of MDE.

Moreover, the panel agreed health or environmental issues shouldn’t be a problem as long as the operation is run according to permit requirements. The idea is “zero discharge,” said Gary Kelman of the MDE. “No discharge will occur…if the permit is adhered to,” Kelman added. We also learned that they inspect based on complaints, and “we have lots of eyes out there,” said Kelman. Operations are inspected every five years at the minimum, but more often if there are complaints.

This to me may be an Achilles heel for the industry, since those who want to stir up trouble can make it difficult for CAFOs (short for concentrated animal feeding operations) to survive a week without some inspection. (To be considered a CAFO, a grower has to deal with 37,500 or more birds.)

And while they couldn’t answer a question dealing with the carrying capacity of our local industry, Mister admitted the number of chickens being grown was probably increasing. “The industry is growing, and that’s a good thing,” said Mister. The industry has to expand to be successful.

It was interesting to me that one of the more asinine questions was what they would do to protect smaller farmers; a question that received a smattering of applause. Mister simply said that was “best answered by the industry.” But on a compliance basis, he noted that all farmers have issues yet they get “phenomenal” cooperation from growers when there are problems.

We went almost the first hour without getting a question about the paleochannel, but one finally came. And the consensus was that there was “little chance” the paleochannel would be affected by these operations because they were all under roof – even the mortality composters were protected from the elements. In the event of a catastrophic loss, there was also the option of using the manure storage shed. There seems to be a lot of redundancy in the operation as well as in the permitting process.

That process also was a concern of some questioners, who worried that there was an effort to “fast-track” approvals. But the idea was to process them as efficiently as possible, protested Hussein Alhija of MDE, who noted “my job is to improve the process.” Several different state entities have to work in conjunction to get these permits in order. It’s a “very complex process.” noted Mister, who added that education on permitting was important. Kelman chimed in by pointing out lenders need the permits in order to fund the operations.

Nor is the paleochannel in danger from the water usage required by these operations. Poultry growing uses “several orders of magnitude” less water than cropland operations, said Grace. In fact, there is “no declining water level” in the aquafers. “We’re okay as far as the water supply goes,” Grace assessed.

Yet while the answers seemed to be satisfactory regarding water quality and permitting, those who thought CAFOs could be eliminated from being adjacent to residential areas were likely disappointed. The only standard that applies as far as the state is concerned is that operations must be 1oo feet away from “waters of the state.” Otherwise, Kelman conceded that it “seems to be a local zoning issue.” Given that residential development is oftentimes adjacent to land zoned agricultural, that will be something the county would need to address.

And there will still be people who are aggravated, even with all the assurances from the state group.

Perhaps the creator of this sign is related to the late William Donald Schaefer, the onetime governor who called the Eastern Shore the “shithouse” of Maryland.

In about an hour and a half, though, we all got a little understanding about the permitting process prospective growers have to go through, and perhaps it’s the idea that dealing with one big farm and one permit rather than several operations that is making the large-scale farms the better business model.

In his introduction, Culver noted there are 2,300 employees of local poultry companies. That’s a decent percentage of the local workforce, and it doesn’t count the ancillary jobs created by the need for these employees to live their lives. If the supply chain of chicken dries up, there will be a significant impact to our local economy that low-impact tourism can’t replace.

Given the evidence that the state of Maryland is trying to be of assistance to growers in maintaining a clean environment, the only explanation for the opposition is that it’s being whipped up by Radical Green, with the paleochannel just an excuse to stop vital development. With the steps being taken to treat stormwater and precautions being taken to keep farm operations as environmentally friendly as possible, I think that chicken growers are trying to be the best neighbors they can – it’s the outside extremists who are trying to foul our economic nest.

Splitting the difference

April 1, 2015 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off on Splitting the difference 

A couple weeks back I alerted you to an issue brought to the fore by Delegate Christopher Adams, a situation which would leave a large number of Medicare patients with long drives to a pharmacy as opposed to perhaps being able to use a more convenient hometown outlet.

While the deadline has come as of today, Adams has introduced and advanced a bill, HB1290, that would halve the distance prescribed by the state. Recall that:

According to a source in the know, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sets the criteria for considering a patient to be “covered” and it depends on their location, stating,”as long as pharmacies are within 10 miles in urban, 20 miles in suburban and 30 miles of patients in rural communities the standards for access to care are met.”

HB1290 would simply cut those distances in half, meaning no one in the state would have to travel more than 15 miles to a covered pharmacy.

Oddly enough, HB1290 is the second-to-last introduced House bill, with the final one (HB1291) also dealing with the subject and introduced by Democratic Delegate Eric Bromwell. His bill would ensure that “an enrollee may elect to receive pharmacy services at a site in the pharmacy provider network of any managed care organization.” Bromwell’s bill was introduced four days after the Adams bill, perhaps as an effort for House Democrats to secure some credit for solving the problem. (Bromwell is on the committee that will deal with both HB1290 and HB1291.)

In a release today, Adams noted that:

This bill originates from a very real problem on the Eastern Shore where pharmaceutical services are not readily available. And under the existing 30 mile rule, it would have made existing pharmaceutical services beyond the reach of many senior citizens. This is just another example of the unintended consequences of the State of Maryland’s early embracement of Obamacare. HB1290 is a reasoned response that will make pharmaceutical services more accessible to senior citizens on the Eastern Shore, as well as save hundreds of pharmacies from going out of business throughout Maryland.

Adams also quotes local pharmacy owner Jeff Sherr:

I am encouraged that small businesses like ours will continue to be able to serve our patients. This bill addresses not only issues with access to care, it is also a protection for businesses that serve our rural Eastern Shore communities and employ our local citizens.

The fact that Adams’s bill got a quick hearing (on tap for tomorrow) is an encouraging sign that the General Assembly may address this problem before it goes home in a couple weeks. While it’s hard for late introduction bills to make it through the process, it has been done before – the gas tax we were saddled with in 2013 was a similar late introduction.

When it comes to services in rural areas, it’s often up to small providers to handle the diminished volume of business that may come from a little community like Snow Hill, Crisfield, or Hurlock. While some may have a larger chain, for the most part they depend on family-owned outlets that may not have the lowest price but are far more convenient.

We’re always told family-owned small businesses are the backbone of the community, so if we can lend them a little support with a common-sense law it should be encouraged. Hopefully Adams will have the legislation to his credit once the session is over.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again

One hopes this will be a cruel April Fools’ joke, but for many on the Eastern Shore it may only be a cruel reality.

Delegate Christopher Adams shared the bad news:

United Health Care has decided to dramatically narrow their network of pharmacies on the Eastern Shore effective April 1st. This new decision will cause residents to drive upwards of 30 miles to get a prescription filled and be the end of the local pharmacy.

It appears that this is another one of those “hidden” consequences of OBAMACARE and Gov. O’Malley’s decision to make Maryland first with implementing OBAMACARE.

Nevertheless, driving 30 miles to get a prescription filled by one of the State’s “favored” pharmacists is wholly unacceptable. I am meeting with United Health Care tomorrow in a first step to ultimately reverse or greatly modify this decision.

According to a source in the know, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sets the criteria for considering a patient to be “covered” and it depends on their location, stating,”as long as pharmacies are within 10 miles in urban, 20 miles in suburban and 30 miles of patients in rural communities the standards for access to care are met.” So if you are in a town like Crisfield, where the nearest “chain” drugstore is the Rite Aid in Princess Anne or Pocomoke City – each about 20 miles away – you are “covered” but it’s not nearly as convenient as a local independent pharmacy. On the Lower Shore stores of the big three chains (CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens) are only found in Berlin, Cambridge, Delmar, Ocean City, Pocomoke City, Princess Anne, and Salisbury. It leaves large coverage gaps in rural areas which may have a pharmacy no longer used for the Medicare programs.

Obviously United Healthcare can choose whoever they want to be in their networks. But the problem with the health care system we are slowly, surely, and not necessarily willingly adopting is that cost is the primary consideration, not patient care. It’s been true ever since we’ve had a third party paying for our medical expenses, but it wasn’t so long ago that we had many more options for our care. Those days are now over as some former providers have left the state, leaving us with fewer from which to choose.

What Adams points out is that Martin O’Malley’s decision to jump right ahead with a fairly restrictive state exchange is now making life more difficult for the people it was supposed to help. Obviously there’s a lot of recovery needed on a national scale just to get back to a system which most were satisfied with, even though some chose not to participate by not purchasing health insurance and some could not afford it. Now while everyone is supposed to have health insurance (or pay a tax penalty) we find that care is even more expensive and difficult to obtain.

Chris isn’t going to get a lot of answers, I’m afraid, because it appears the die has been cast. And as a state legislator his impact on the national argument is small. But even if some of the independent pharmacies in under-served areas are added back in, it would be a step in the right direction. There may be a chain drugstore on every corner in Salisbury, but some of the smaller towns still cling to their local drugstore because it’s a sufficient size to cover the small market of a little village.

Thirty miles is a long way to go to get a prescription. That may be necessary for a need late at night or on a weekend, but for most refills and common items it shouldn’t be a requirement.

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