BALTIMORE, Md. – The trial for a dispute that started three years ago after environmentalists accused an Eastern Shore farm and poultry giant Perdue Farms Inc. of polluting a stream that ultimately flows to the Chesapeake Bay gets under way this week in federal court in Baltimore.

The Waterkeeper's Alliance claims Berlin-based Hudson Farm (owned by Alan and Kristin Hudson) and Salisbury-based Perdue are polluting a waterway near the farm. Environmentalists and agriculture interests each say the trial could have far-reaching impact. Farm groups have said the suit could bankrupt the Hudson Farm and set a harmful precedent for other family farms. Environmentalists say poultry giants such as Perdue should be held responsible for pollution by their contract growers.

The Univ. of Maryland's environmental law clinic is representing the alliance in the bench trial.

"This could be the landmark case that changes how we do business when it comes to producing our meat,'' said Tom Jones, president of the Assateague Coastal Trust, a Berlin-based environmental group that helped bring the suit. "This is a national issue, and it goes beyond just chickens; it goes to cattle, hogs and other poultry operations."

"We feel like it's a lawsuit against all of us," said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, who contended a ruling against the Hudsons and Perdue would set "a dangerous precedent."

The Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper’s Alliance didn't set out to drive the Hudsons out of business or even to target Perdue, Jones said. They are concerned with cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, he said, and believe the Eastern Shore's concentration of chickens is part of the problem.

The UM environmental law clinic, in its pretrial filings, has laid out a circumstantial case, arguing that the pollution had to come from the Hudson farm, and at least some of it came from the 80,000 chickens kept in two long houses near the ditch. Photos submitted to the court show large ventilation fans used to cool the chicken houses that are encrusted with brownish debris. Other photos show a shallow swale between the houses that appears to funnel rainfall into a corrugated pipe that empties into the ditch.

Environmentalists have long argued that so-called "factory farms" are major sources of water pollution because hundreds and even thousands of chickens, hogs or cattle are raised in close quarters, without adequate measures to keep the massive amounts of waste generated from washing into nearby streams.

Perdue issued the following pre-trial statement:

“We look forward to a full and thorough hearing of this case by Judge Nickerson. We remain confident in the merits of our arguments and are eager to present them to the Court.

“This case has never been about pollution but about an extreme activist group’s opposition to modern agriculture and their use of ‘hard-nosed litigation’ to achieve their objectives.

“Unfortunately, Alan and Kristin Hudson and the possible bankrupting of this fourth-generation Maryland farm family are the collateral damage in the Waterkeepers’ attack on the poultry industry.

“We find it ironic that Perdue, one of the most environmentally progressive poultry companies and the only one providing an outlet for farmers who don’t have a use for their chicken litter, is targeted in this suit.

“Perdue is an environmental leader with a long history of investing in research, new technologies, equipment upgrades, awareness and training to address environmental issues. We believe it is possible to preserve the family farm and provide a safe, abundant and affordable food supply, while protecting our communities and the environment.

We look forward to our day in court.”