(Delmarvanow.com) -- Members of an environmental group concerned about water pollution held a press conference at the Onancock Wharf on Thursday to coincide with the timing of a Tyson Foods shareholders meeting in Arkansas.
The event was part of a campaign by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Mighty Earth to push the nation's largest meat producer to adopt sustainable practices in its supply chain.
A resolution the group wanted the company to adopt was not approved at the shareholders meeting.
The resolution's supporters were asking Tyson's board of directors to adopt and implement a comprehensive water stewardship policy.
A Tyson Foods spokeswoman said the board's position is that the company's present policies and procedures adequately address concerns about water quality.
"We understand the importance of water stewardship, and the company has implemented a wide range of initiatives to reduce risks of water contamination. The company’s present policies, procedures, and plans appropriately and adequately address the concerns raised in the proposal and the adoption of another policy is unnecessary and duplicative," according to a statement about the resolution attributed to the Tyson board of directors and released by Tyson spokeswoman Caroline Ahn.
The owner of an aquaculture business in Accomack County, who is also a Tyson shareholder, said he disagrees with the company's position.
"As a Tyson shareholder, I believe Tyson should pass this resolution to protect water quality and aquaculture on Virginia's Eastern Shore," said David Fick, owner of Nandua Oyster Company LLC.
Speaking at the press conference, Fick said his company — which employs seven to 12 workers depending on the season — has 12 million oysters growing in seven underwater leases in Nandua Creek and depends on clean water to survive.
"Our baby oysters simply cannot survive a change in water quality from the 25 new CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) houses that are currently being constructed upstream," he said, noting, "Aquaculture is the single largest growth business on the Shore."
Fick challenged Tyson's management "to come here, take a tour of the fragile ecology on this thin little strip of land, look at the direct impacts."
Mighty Earth organizer Celeste Pepitone-Nahas in a press release said, "Citizens on the Eastern Shore are extremely concerned about water quality impacts because the Shore relies on clean water quality for aquaculture, tourism and recreational and commercial fishing, both in the Chesapeake Bay and in our seaside bays and offshore waters."
She said Tyson "has the capacity to lead U.S. agriculture toward a future where clean water is ensured, but we need them to step up and protect the communities they are operating in."
Among other speakers was Sue Mastyl, a board member of Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper.
"Community members in both Accomack and Northampton counties are concerned about the high density of poultry houses on the Shore, as well as the potential for runoff on crop fields where the manure is applied," Mastyl said.
"What is Tyson's plan to reduce negative pollution impacts and prevent manure and fertilizer runoff from leaching into our bayside and seaside creeks? If Tyson really wants to be a good neighbor, we need to see concrete plans to address these concerns."
Ahn said Tyson representatives have talked to the group Mighty Earth "and are aware of their concerns. We’re committed to doing our part to address potential issues about pollution from crops, but believe any real changes must involve a broad coalition of leaders from across the supply chain working together, not just a single company."
She also said the company has made "significant progress over the years using grain more efficiently in our chicken business. We will continue to talk to farmers, academic experts, government regulators and environmental groups about additional improvements in how grain is produced and used."
The company is "looking at a variety of ways to collaborate with others, including feed suppliers, to encourage farmers to deploy best practices in nutrient management," Ahn said.
Accomack County residents Matt Cormons and Norman Colpitts also spoke at the event.
"It's going to ruin the water industry, the tourism industry and many things that the Shore relies upon," Cormons said of water quality problems.
"It's not fair that one big industry — the chicken industry — should actually be the major cause of these problems and not face any consequences," he said.
Colpitts, a retired teacher who lives on Craddock Creek, said he attended a recent public hearing about permits for three Accomack County chicken farms, held by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality at Nandua High School in Onley.
"The issue is the rapid increase — I think some 250 chicken houses — in the construction of chicken houses in Accomack County, and the likelihood of increased pollution of the air and the water, both the Bay and the groundwater, which is very limited here on the Shore," he said.
At an information session before the hearing, he learned water quality monitoring required for the chicken farms under the permits would involve the farms' management, four times a year, taking a water sample in a clear glass jar, "look at it, notice if there is any color, floating debris, and then smell the water ... That is it ... She said there's no testing for nutrients, nitrogen, antibiotics or any of the other multitude of chemicals that might be present."
"The point is, no one can tell if the water is clean unless it is tested regularly by trained, impartial observers — not by someone with a vested interested," Colpitts said, adding, "We have here the classic conflict between what is good for business and what is good for the environment.
"The people of Accomack County must require these massive poultry companies to do business in such a way that their profit does not come at the expense of our environment."
Mighty Earth has taken its #CleanItUpTyson to nine regions, including the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
More than 65,000 petition signatures from the regions were delivered outside the company’s annual meeting, according to a press release from Mighty Earth.
Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper Jay Ford was in Springdale, Arkansas, to attend the shareholders meeting. Ford voted Fick's Tyson shares in favor of the resolution, Fick said.
"We appreciate the important role that poultry plays in the economy of the Eastern Shore and Virginia at large, but we also recognize that the industry has a significant impact on our seaside and Chesapeake Bay waters," Ford said in a statement issued before the meeting.
"As Tyson continues to expand in Accomack County, it is essential that we prevent excessive nutrients from entering waterways and setting back the progress made in cleaning up our Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, we need plans to mitigate the impacts to our delicate sole-source aquifer on the Eastern Shore, which provides our drinking water," he said.
Ford said adopting the resolution would be "a win-win" for Tyson and Virginia’s waters.
"Tyson customers, like Walmart, have increasingly strict expectations of their suppliers when it comes to natural resource stewardship. Companies are responding to the growing customer demand that food should not be produced at the expense of our environment," he said.
"On the Eastern Shore, clean water is paramount, supporting our fisheries, tourism, and aquaculture businesses. Our community can simply not afford for this pollution to go unaddressed."
This is the fourth consecutive year the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment — a coalition of Roman Catholic institutional investors — has supported the American Baptist Home Mission Society in filing a resolution asking Tyson Foods to adopt a comprehensive water stewardship policy.
The resolution this year was backed by 13 co-filers, including faith-based institutional investors, foundations and asset managers, according to a press release from the coalition.