Gov.-elect Larry Hogan promised Maryland farmers Monday that his "first fight" in office would be against costly new farm pollution regulations, even as environmental groups released new data showing many Eastern Shore chicken farms could be fouling the Chesapeake Bay.
Speaking to the Maryland Farm Bureau's annual convention in Ocean City, Hogan indicated he would weaken or reverse controversial rules proposed last month by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration. The rules, which could take effect just before Hogan takes office Jan. 21, would curtail Shore farmers' widespread use of poultry manure as fertilizer.
"The first fight will be against these politically motivated, midnight-hour phosphorus management tool regulations that the outgoing administration is trying to force upon you in these closing days," Hogan said. "We won't allow them to put you out of business, destroy your way of life, or decimate your entire industry."
In remarks prepared for delivery to the farm group, Hogan said, "I am going to do everything I can to make sure these ill-conceived regulations are never implemented as currently written." He didn't spell out what he would do to stop the new rules, and a spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
The O'Malley administration presented its long-delayed "phosphorus management tool" to a legislative review committee last month, on the last day possible for completing new regulations before the Democratic incumbent leaves office.
The proposed rules would limit how much phosphorus-rich fertilizer farmers can spread on their fields. Many croplands on the lower Shore, the heart of the state's poultry industry, are saturated with phosphorus from repeated use of chicken manure to raise corn, soybeans and other crops. Levels of phosphorus, one of the pollutants responsible for the bay's fish-suffocating "dead zone," are rising in Shore rivers that drain farm fields.
Farmers have long opposed the rules, however, contending they're potentially ruinous and unnecessary. A Salisbury University study projected they could cost grain farmers and chicken growers $22.5 million over six years, even with increased financial help proposed by the O'Malley administration.
Shore legislators concerned about the economic impact of the proposed rules have requested a hearing on them. State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who co-chairs the legislative panel reviewing them, said Hogan can follow the same regulatory procedures O'Malley did to reverse the rules once he takes office.
But the Prince George's Democrat, one of the legislature's leading environmental advocates, warned that Hogan would be inviting further problems in the bay if he doesn't deal with the issue.
"It's just unfortunate that the governor-elect didn't pause to read some of the studies and the science and the harmful effects on the bay before he started making promises to the farmers," Pinsky said.
In a Baltimore Sun interview during the campaign, Hogan acknowledged that phosphorus pollution is hurting the bay. But he questioned how hard the O'Malley administration had sought to work with farmers and said he'd seek unspecified "common-sense solutions" that wouldn't pose onerous financial burdens.
The O'Malley administration had pledged three years ago to tackle the problem of phosphorus running off Shore farm fields. Officials twice proposed — and then withdrew — versions of the rules to try to address concerns raised by farmers and the poultry industry. The rules put forward by O'Malley last month would phase them in over six years to give growers a chance to adjust.
About the same time Hogan spoke to farmers, a pair of environmental groups released new state data on large-scale Shore chicken farms showing that many have been over-fertilizing their fields with phosphorus-rich poultry manure.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group, said it had reviewed annual reports submitted to the state by more than 400 "animal-feeding" operations. Most said their birds' manure was hauled away, so there's no publicly available record of what happened to it. But of the 62 farms that said they used manure to fertilize their own fields, the group found three-fourths gave their crops three times the phosphorus they needed to grow.
"This is actually farm-level data showing it's true, this stuff is being slapped on above what crops need," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the environmental group.
The Center for Progressive Reform, also based in Washington, said all but one of the large-scale animal farms whose reports it had reviewed had at least one field where the soil was already saturated with phosphorus. Soil tests taken on more than 1,000 fields in six Shore counties found excessive phosphorus levels on more than 60 percent of them, the center said.