Amid an outcry from Maryland farmers, state officials pulled back again Friday from a new regulation aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay by restricting the use of animal manure to fertilize crops.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture announced that it was withdrawing the proposed rule for more study, less than a week before a legislative hearing that was expected to draw a standing-room-only crowd.
The move was welcomed by agriculture industry spokesmen, who had questioned the science behind the rule and complained about the potential economic impact on farmers. Eastern Shore growers especially rely on manure from the millions of chickens raised there to fertilize fields.
Environmentalists accused the state of backpedaling on its commitment to the bay-restoration effort.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance issued a statement declaring that the O'Malley administration remains committed to adopting the rule, which is part of the state's federally enforced plan for reducing bay pollution, but wants to consider concerns raised by farmers and industry groups.
"We will meet our Chesapeake Bay restoration goals," Hance said, "taking every step possible to protect water quality and ensure the viability of our family farms in Maryland."
The state had proposed requiring that farmers use a new analytical tool developed by the University of Maryland for determining which fields should not be fertilized with chicken or other animal manure. Scientists say the new phosphorus limits could prevent many Maryland farmers from using animal manure as fertilizer.
It was the second time this year that state officials have gone back to the drawing board on the plan for curbing manure usage. An emergency regulation that would have taken effect this fall was yanked in late August after agriculture groups complained that it could cripple the state's poultry industry.
The vehemence of farmers' opposition took state officials by surprise. Last week, Hance had said he thought leaders of agriculture and environmental groups had accepted the revised rule put forward in mid-October, which delayed imposition for a year and pledged to boost state funds for transporting manure around the bay to farms that could safely use it.
But leaders of agricultural groups denied that they'd ever agreed to anything and said a one-year delay was not enough time to adjust. Hundreds of farmers packed public meetings to question and complain about the proposed regulation. Having to buy chemical fertilizer to replace cheaper manure would raise the costs of growing crops such as corn, opponents said, possibly amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in added expense for large farmers.
"We appreciate the state listening to our concerns," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., which represents poultry processors and growers. He contended that the rule was based on "incomplete science" and said the state should hold off on such a big change until after a scheduled review of the entire bay restoration effort in 2017.
"There were a lot of questions, a lot of concern, and I think this will give more time for these things to be looked into," said Patricia Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Environmentalists have been pressing state officials to stand firm against the farmers' complaints.
Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the state had told the Environmental Protection Agency that the manure curbs would be put in place two years ago as part of the state's plan for complying with the "pollution diet" for the bay.
Maryland farmers raised more than 300 million chickens last year, according to Satterfield's group, but those birds also produce hundreds of millions of pounds of manure annually. And manure runoff accounts for 26 percent of the phosphorus getting into the bay, according to the EPA.
"We recognize the value of poultry manure as an organic fertilizer," she said, "but the reality is that too much of it in the wrong place has a significant impact on local waters."
Roy Hoagland, spokesman for a coalition of environmental groups supporting the rule, said it was based on more than a decade of research.
"Every day of delay is more polluting phosphorus into the bay," Hoagland said.
State officials said they intend to resubmit the regulation next year. One option being considered would be to phase it in, one official suggested, limiting manure use first on farms where runoff poses the biggest water-quality risks.
"We're not saying we're not doing it," said Assistant Agriculture Secretary Royden Powell. "It's just a strategy issue in terms of how you implement it."
An earlier version misstated research on the issue. Scientists have not estimated what percentage of farmland is saturated with phosphorus. They do project that many farmers could be forced by the rule to switch to chemical fertilizer.