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Are phosphorus rules in trouble?

If all went as planned, Gov. Martin O'Malley spent this past weekend in Iowa, his second trip to the state in a month, which puts him about two visits ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this year. His purpose is hardly a secret as he's considered a likely Democratic candidate, albeit a relatively unknown one, for a 2016 presidential run.

Conventional wisdom is that candidates in Iowa say nice things about agriculture. One of the big controversies involving this year's race for a U.S. Senate seat from the Hawkeye state, for instance, was whether the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, threatened a lawsuit when some of his neighbor's organically-raised chickens wandered into his yard.

Given the circumstances, Mr. O'Malley may well be content that back home in Maryland, one of his administration's most controversial initiatives involving farmers and chickens currently sits on a shelf. That would be the rules known as the "Phosphorus Management Tool" intended to reduce phosphorus pollution, which is commonly the result of excess poultry manure.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly ordered the state to conduct an analysis of the economic costs and benefits of the phosphorus rules first proposed in 2013. Whether the rules will survive that analysis remains to be seen. The president of the Maryland Farm Bureau recently expressed doubts to an Eastern Shore newspaper, calling recent reports demonstrating a lack of progress in reducing phosphorus levels a "last ditch effort to save" the rules.

That's alarming. Not because anyone wishes to see Eastern Shore farmers saddled with higher costs or regulatory burdens but because phosphorus levels in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries remain a vexing problem. What those recent studies show is that the last decade of efforts to reduce phosphorus has not yielded much positive result and that there are some rivers where pollution levels have actually gone up over time.

Facts are facts. There are "hot spots" on the Eastern Shore where the land is saturated with phosphorus, the legacy of the billions of chickens that have been raised there. The impact on rivers is clear (or perhaps "cloudy" is the more apt description for the literal-minded), as excess phosphorous, along with too much nitrogen, leads to algae blooms and oxygen-deprived dead zones that kill plants and animals.

According to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project, Maryland's current approach is not working, no matter what the Farm Bureau may claim. Supporters believe the state won't be able to meet its commitment to significantly reduce phosphorus pollution under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "pollution diet" without getting tougher on farmers.

That's not to suggest that Mr. O'Malley is certain to side with farmers because he has presidential aspirations. He's got his share of "green" credentials, too, having backed clean energy and climate change legislation as well as efforts to save the Chesapeake Bay in his two terms in Annapolis. But his ties to the poultry industry have also been questioned before. That includes a remarkable speech this year in which he promised to veto a proposed 5-cent wholesale tax on chickens before the bill even had so much as a hearing before the legislature and his initial willingness to put the phosphorus rules on hold last year long before the economic analysis was proposed.

Given those clues, it's no wonder that environmental organizations are worried that the O'Malley administration is getting weak-kneed about regulating phosphorus that runs off farm fields. It's taken years for phosphorus levels to build up in the soil from all that poultry litter applied to fertilize crops, and it will take years after that practice is stopped for improvements in water quality to be observed.

Perhaps the governor needs to be reminded of how vital it is for Maryland to move forward in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, not only to comply with the EPA but because it is this state's most important and valuable natural resource. Maryland's crab harvest is down, its oyster population remains low and even rockfish are experiencing subpar reproduction. The solution is not to ignore the threat of phosphorus or allow the poultry industry to veto the rules but to stick to bay cleanup goals even when they are unpopular with politically influential groups in Maryland or Iowa.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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