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Environmental activists failed to prove that an Eastern Shore farm that raises poultry for Perdue polluted the Pocomoke River, U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson ruled Thursday.

Aided by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastal Trust sued farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson and poultry giant Perdue Farms Inc., based in Salisbury, seeking $300,000 in penalties for what they argued were violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The dispute started with a pile of material, photographed in 2009, near a drainage ditch on the Hudsons' farm outside Berlin, Md.

The Hudsons said it was treated sewage solids that they intended to use as fertilizer, not chicken manure, as Assateague Coastal Trust executive director Kathy Phillips said it appeared to be.

State inspectors confirmed there was no evidence of chicken manure in the pile but ordered the Hudsons to move the pile and surround it with straw to absorb any runoff.

During testimony in the case in October, law clinic director Jane F. Barrett argued that other conditions on the Hudsons' farm, including debris-laden fans, could have moved pollution from the poultry operation to the Pocomoke River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

In a statement Thursday, Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung called the decision “a resounding victory for Perdue and farm families everywhere.”

Lawyers for Perdue said during the trial that environmentalists planned the lawsuits and chose the Hudsons after they spotted their pile in “an aerial hunt.”

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said, in a statement, that poultry is the state's largest agricultural sector and is critically important to the economy.

“Judge Nickerson's ruling today goes a long way toward ensuring that both our agricultural heritage and our effort to restore the Bay can move forward cooperatively and in harmony, rather than through damaging litigation,” he said.

In a statement, Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group, said that, despite the legal decision, the fight to reform concentrated animal feeding operations and make the poultry industry more accountable made progress through the case “by exposing the dominant control exerted by the companies over the contract growers” and inadequate regulation.