Tens of thousands of people living on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore are being exposed to hazardously high levels of nitrates from industrial agriculture operations that release tons of animal waste into the soil and water, according to a new study.

Researchers with The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) acquired well water test data from Maryland’s Wicomico and Worcester counties and reviewed annual reports on water quality from public water utilities in the three counties forming the Lower Eastern Shore. They found that more than a third of the population of Wicomico and Worcester counties, or at least 61,000 people, may have been or are being exposed to nitrate levels considered hazardous to health.

Nitrates are a naturally occurring compound that in high levels can be extremely toxic to humans. Nitrate pollution has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy complications and neonatal health issues, including a deadly condition known as blue baby syndrome.

Concentrated animal feeding operations

According to the CPR study, Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore is home to hundreds of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce staggering amounts of animal waste.

“A single poultry CAFO raising 82,000 laying hens can produce 2,800 tons of manure a year, more than three times the amount produced by the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore each year,” said Darya Minovi, CPR Policy Analyst and co-author of the study, Tainted Tap: Nitrate Pollution, Factory Farms, and Drinking Water in Maryland and Beyond.

“Though private well testing data is limited, our investigation found indicators that CAFO pollution is contaminating the groundwater that residents rely on for their drinking water,” she added. “Since nitrates are colorless, tasteless, and odorless, most families don’t even know that it’s in their water.”

The CAFOs have proliferated in the area within the last decade. According to CPR, there were seven such agricultural operations on the Lower Eastern Shore in 2009. In October 2020, there are 526. Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties have the most CAFOs in the state.

Runoff and water contamination

Water contamination levels in the state have increased along with the drastic rise in the number of CAFOs. According to CPR, nitrogen pollution in Maryland’s waterways increased 30% between 2009 and 2018. The animal manure produced by the CAFOs doesn’t undergo sewage treatment and is applied to fields in solid or liquid form. Any time it rains or the fields are irrigated, the untreated manure enters surface and groundwater.

Researchers found that as a result, one in 25 private drinking water wells in Wicomico and Worcester counties contain nitrate concentrations above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety threshold. An additional one in 14 of the wells had concentrations below the EPA limits, but at levels still considered toxic to human health by other public health studies.

Lack of protections

Federal laws do not require states to periodically test private well water for safety, and CPR researchers found that Maryland ranked among the five worst states for policies and programs dedicated to well water protections and safety. The Federal Clean Water Act, which sets the maximum threshold for pollutants in drinking water, applies to public drinking water systems only, not to private wells.

Additionally, nitrates can’t be removed from the water by boiling, filtering, or even chemically treating it. Only costly methods such as ion exchange and reverse osmosis can effectively clean the water, but those treatments are financially out of reach for the mostly low-income residents of the affected counties.

The CPR’s study found that nitrates also are contaminating some of the public water utilities on the Eastern Lower Shore. Researchers found that one public water utility reported nitrate levels above EPA’s safety threshold, and more than half of the public water utilities that reported nitrate concentrations had levels just below the threshold.

Several water utilities in the area did not report nitrate levels at all or they reported nitrate levels from samples collected in previous years, “painting a troubling and incomplete picture of nitrate contamination in public water supplies in the region,” the CPR analysis said.

Water contamination litigation

Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. We often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.

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