On June 9, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a remote hearing, “Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.” The Center for Progressive Reform, joined by Fair Farms, Sentinels of Eastern Shore Health (SESH), and the Sussex Health and Environmental Network submitted a fact sheet to subcommittee members outlining the impacts of COVID-19 on the Delmarva Peninsula, along with a number of recommendations for building a more sustainable model for the region.
The area is home to a massive poultry industry, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. We addressed several of the most severe problems in our fact sheet, including the following.
Public Health Harms from 'Depopulation'
Because of pandemic-driven staffing shortages, approximately 2 million chickens in the region, likely more, have been killed without having been processed into consumer-ready meat. According to the industry, once the birds grow beyond a certain point, they cannot be readily processed by the region's slaughterhouses, so killing these birds with unspecified "humane" methods was the only practical alternative. The bodies of these "depopulated" birds, to use industry's term, have been left in the poultry houses where they were raised to decompose.
Worker Safety at Risk
Hundreds of Delmarva slaughterhouse workers, along with their family members, are infected with COVID-19; at least five have died. Animal processing facilities, where employees work shoulder to shoulder, have become the nation’s leading hotspots for the spread of the virus. Farm workers have also been deemed “essential” and face similar threats.
Heightened Environmental Impacts
Killing millions of birds in a geographically concentrated area creates a new waste stream in an ecosystem already overburdened by environmental pollution, especially phosphorus. Land application, where the dead chicken compost would be spread on fields similar to fertilizer, has been recommended as a means to dispose of the dead chicken compost, but this type of compost is generally higher in phosphorus than chicken manure and would pose serious run-off concerns.
To build a more resilient economy, healthier communities, and a cleaner environment, we recommend supporting policies that: