ACCOMAC, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- A group of five Eastern Shore of Virginia residents is asking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to consider placing an injunction on 83 chicken farms in Accomack County that did not obtain groundwater withdrawal permits.

The three-page letter to DEQ Director David Paylor, dated Feb. 15, is from Citizens Concerned about Groundwater on the Eastern Shore, et al., with an Exmore return address given.

Signing the letter were Kenneth Dufty, of Exmore; Carlene Zach, of Pungoteague; Gene Gibson, of Wachapreague; Anne Winston Batchelder, of Pungoteague; and Ann Violi, of Harborton.

A copy of the letter was sent to Gov. Ralph Northam.

Describing themselves as "a loosely-formed, unincorporated group from two counties on Virginia's Eastern Shore," the letter's writers ask the DEQ and the State Water Control Board to "issue an immediate mandamus or injunction on any current and future groundwater withdrawal from the Upper or Middle Yorktown aquifer" until each of the chicken farming facilities in question receives a groundwater withdrawal permit.

"We know the Commonwealth is pro-poultry, but the law is the law, and it should not be so cavalierly eviscerated," said Zach, who lives near a 24-house chicken farm, in a press release from the group.

What the group is asking for — the immediate halt of groundwater withdrawals by the facilities — would "be catastrophic for the welfare of millions of chickens — since it should be clear to everyone that birds cannot survive when deprived of water," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.

For farmers who rely on raising chickens for their livelihood, "an unexpected order not to use their wells would be devastating; their families would lose important income and the very existence of their farms would be put at grave risk," Satterfield said, calling the group's suggestion "irresponsible" and "a drastic step" that "goes against every instinct a farmer has to care for animals with compassion."

The letter cites the Groundwater Management Act of 1992 as grounds for the request, and notes that the law allows the State Water Control Board to impose a $25,000 per day fine for each instance in which more than the 300,000 gallons per month threshold is withdrawn in a groundwater management area without a permit — although the letter notes the signees are not suggesting a fine.

The letter claims that, while water use by each individual broiler house may not exceed the 300,000 gallon-per-month threshold that requires a groundwater withdrawal permit, "most studying this issue believe that a facility that contains over three (66 feet by 600 feet) broiler houses would exceed that limit."

The 83 farms either operating, under construction or in the planning stages in Accomack County could total between 250 and 270 broiler houses, according to the letter.

The letter claims once DEQ realized none of the facilities had applied for a groundwater withdrawal permit, all 83 were contacted by letter, "inviting them to enter into a program where 'amnesty' would be awarded for this violation of Virginia law if they 'voluntarily' agree to retroactively apply for a groundwater withdrawal permit."

"That's like jumping off a cliff and then googling 'parachute' on the way down. It's ridiculous," Dufty said in the release.

But David Paylor, DEQ director, said the group's statement in that paragraph of the letter is not accurate.

The agency plans to respond to the group's letter by the end of the week, Paylor said Tuesday.

According to Satterfield, Virginia chicken growers, Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., the Virginia Poultry Federation and the DEQ "have been working together for several months on compliance and outreach on the groundwater permit issue."

"That work began as soon as DEQ made chicken growers aware of the permit requirement," he said.

"Farmers share the goal of ensuring the Eastern Shore of Virginia's groundwater is used in a responsible, enduring manner," Satterfield said.

The letter writers' first stated goal is to have the DEQ "fully assess and model the impact to our sole source aquifer from the withdrawal of groundwater from the Upper Yorktown aquifer before allowing any current of future allegedly illegal use so we can determine the actual or potential consequence that may result from that withdrawal to our drinking water supplies from the 83 CAFO facilities and discover if that withdrawal is sustainable."

An additional goal is to encourage the agency to suggest that current and future chicken farms in Accomack County use the Columbia Aquifer, which the letter describes as "highly-recharged," rather than the Yorktown Aquifer.

"There is a reason why the Eastern Shore of Virginia has been named a 'sole source aquifer' by the EPA," Violi said, adding, "These CAFOs should be encouraged to use groundwater from the surface aquifer otherwise known as the Columbia, where there are ample supplies and that use does not compete with our limited supplies in the Yorktown."