MOOREFIELD, W.Va. — Mudlick Run rises in the foothills of the Alleghenies. The creek tumbles, muddy and turbid, for eight miles through the hardwood forest and grassy pastures of northeastern West Virginia to a village called Old Fields. There, joining the south branch of the Potomac River, it meanders past a Pilgrim’s poultry plant, which sends up plumes of chicken-scented steam. The water eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Farms line the creek, and six miles west of Moorefield, up a steep bank, lies a 24-acre parcel with eight silver chicken houses and 16 cylindrical feed bins.
On the morning of June 17, 2011, Lois Alt, a petite 62-year-old with short, reddish hair and glasses, stepped out of the chicken houses. Nearly a dozen federal and state officials gathered on her driveway. Ashley Toy, an inspector from the Philadelphia office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and seven or eight others began walking around the houses with clipboards and a camera. Since 2001, Alt and her husband, Tony, have been raising chickens — about 200,000 at a time — on their property under contract with Pilgrim’s, the second-largest chicken producer in the world. They had just finished a total clean-out of the barns, removing hundreds of tons of manure-caked litter.