TEMPERERANCEVILLE, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Tyson Foods announced a change in its water usage procedures for chickenhouses, tapping into an Eastern Shore aquifer that has a higher replenishment rate than the source that provides most of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s drinking water.
The announcement follows a growing debate over the impact of chickenhouses on the Shore’s drinking water supply.
"We are here to announce publicly that Tyson Foods, going forward, on the new houses — we will drill into the Columbia shallow aquifer for our cool cell pads," said Kevin Taylor, Tyson Foods Temperanceville complex manager.
Cool cell pads are an evaporative cooling system that helps regulate temperatures in chickenhouses in hot weather.
Using the shallow aquifer for some uses is a step for which some on the Shore, including environmental groups, have long advocated to help preserve the region's supply of drinking water.
Taylor was a late addition to the agenda of the Feb. 21 Accomack County Board of Supervisors meeting.
He said the company also will look at the possibility of retrofitting recently built chickenhouses.
"This is all based on where its available because, talking with the drillers, that may not be available in every single situation," he said.
The announcement resulted from a Feb. 6 meeting between Accomack and Tyson officials, said Robert Crockett, Board of Supervisors chairman.
"It's a great move on your part, and it's totally voluntary — it's a voluntary move, and we appreciate that," Crockett said.
"We're doing this because we are good neighbors," Taylor said.
Crockett said the water used for coolant is about 66 percent of the total used for growing operations, based on Department of Environmental Quality figures.
That would leave around 34 percent of water used coming from the Yorktown aquifer.
The Columbia aquifer has a much higher replenishment rate than the Yorktown, according to scientists.
Taylor said despite the recent increase in chickenhouse construction, Tyson Foods is not expanding its growing operations in Accomack County.
"The amount of chickens that is being processed today will be the amount of chickens being processed until the foreseeable future," he said.
Taylor said new chickenhouses being built in the county are replacements for older ones.
Still, he said Tyson is expanding its Temperanceville processing plant, adding new equipment, modern technology and more jobs — "creating more out of the meat that we are already processing."
Taylor then said the director of an environmental group is spreading "propaganda and lies about groundwater withdrawal, pollution — everything you're reading out there is false information."
Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper Jay Ford countered some of Taylor's remarks in a written response — but said the group "is thrilled by Tyson’s announcement that they will be taking steps to protect the drinking water of the Eastern Shore. This is an important step by the company to reduce their impacts on our natural resources."
The organization hopes Tyson's leadership on the issue encourages their competitors to take similar actions, Ford said.
Still, he said, "It is critical to future conversations that Tyson pull back from misleading statements regarding the size of poultry on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and their past willingness to address environmental issues."
Earlier in the same meeting in which Taylor made the announcement, four people spoke during a public comment period about their concerns about groundwater use by poultry operations.
Donna Bozza, executive director of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, said she spoke for the group's more than 1,400 members.
"We want to recognize that managing the Shore's poultry industry in a truly sustainable manner is difficult and complex," she said, adding the organization recognizes the importance of the industry to local farmers and the region's economy.
"However, these important constituencies must be balanced against the fundamental right of our community to have clean water and clean air, to enjoy the benefits of living in this incredible place we call home," Bozza said.
"It is the board's responsibility, as the elected officials for all the people of Accomack County, and being good stewards of the Eastern Shore, to thoughtfully address the community's concerns," Bozza said.
Also speaking were Sue Mastyl, Miriam Riggs and Ken Dufty.
With withdrawals already permitted, plus residential use and current poultry operations drawing from the Yorktown aquifer, "We're up to 11 to 15 million gallons a day, still with a recharge rate of approximately 9 million gallons a day," Mastyl said.
"There's no doubt we're drawing out more than we're putting in," she said.
Supervisor Grayson Chesser called Tyson's announcement about using water from the Columbia "a real step forward."
"I hope that DEQ will look at this and change their regulations so it encourages people to go to the shallow aquifer, instead of forcing you to go through everything that you have to go if you are drilling to the Yorktown," he said.
Taylor said the company hopes that, after its voluntary change, there will be "some legislation changes to that permitting process."