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Maryland wants to weaken winter manure rules

Op-ed: Don't let Maryland weaken winter ban on manure/sewage spreading.

We all try to meet our obligations in life, whether personal or professional. Living up to our commitments builds trust and earns a worthy reputation.

That's why it's so disappointing that the Maryland Department of Agriculture is proposing to weaken the ban against spreading manure and sewage sludge during winter months by allowing for certain exemptions.

This important environmental regulation, which was adopted in 2012 and went into effect this past July, is designed to keep manure and processed sewage from wastewater treatment plants from running off into our waterways.

Agriculture is an important industry on the Eastern Shore, but it's also the single biggest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. In order to reduce pollution from agricultural runoff, Maryland banned spreading manure and sewage sludge during winter when the ground is often frozen (after Nov. 1 on the Eastern Shore and November 16 on the Western Shore). This is just common sense because most crops don't grow during winter and frozen or hard ground can't absorb fertilizer.

But it isn't just animal manure that's affected; wastewater treatment plants process human sewage and then spread that on agricultural fields as "fertilizer." This may be acceptable during the growing season, but during winter months, this is just waste management, pure and simple.

The winter ban regulation applied to animal manure and processed sewage, called biosolids. To give farmers and wastewater utilities time to prepare storage facilities or take other steps to comply, the regulation did not take effect until four years after adoption. Many other concessions were made at the time, and the resulting rules were a compromise.

So now, as winter approaches and the new rules finally kick in, all of a sudden the state appears to be weakening them, according to a proposed amendment to the regulation, printed in the Maryland Register last month. The proposal comes amid claims that industry needs more time to get their winter storage facilities ready. Really? What have they been doing for the last four years? Plenty of farmers and biosolids companies were able to comply in time. Letting others off the hook is hardly fair to the ones who met their obligations and played by the rules.

We aren't going to make progress on cleaning up our local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay if we balk every time someone says something is too hard or that they need more time. I don't want to see any more toxic algae blooms or dead zones in Eastern Shore rivers or any rivers in Maryland. And I don't want to see farm fields on the shore become "dumping grounds" for processed sewage.

The current winter regulations are based on science and are designed to protect public health and water quality. Weakening them will result in more manure and biosolids on the ground for longer periods of time and result in more pollution. And that's what the state is proposing. The weakened regulations would allow spreading manure or biosolids when the ground is frozen less than two inches or the snow covering is less than an inch. Who's going to monitor and track that?

In a Nov. 7 statement, Maryland Agricultural Secretary Joe Bartenfelder himself said "applying fertilizer to hard or frozen ground provides a direct pathway for nutrient runoff into the storm drains that feed the Bay. Excess nutrients promote the growth of algae which can devastate aquatic systems. Everyone needs to do their part to protect the health of local streams and the Chesapeake Bay."

I agree. We must not backslide on attempts to clean up nutrient pollution. We all are working hard to reduce pollution and protect our communities; it's part of our commitment as Marylanders. And to be successful, we all need to live up to our commitments and obligations. I'm simply asking the Maryland Department of Agriculture to live up to its commitments and not weaken manure regulations that protect our waterways from pollution.

Jeffrey H. Horstman is executive director of the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy and the riverkeeper for the Miles and Wye rivers; he is also a member of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition. his email is jeff@midshoreriverkeeper.org.

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