Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and General Assembly Democrats reached a deal Wednesday to settle a fight over how to curb bay-fouling pollutants flowing off farms.
The compromise on chicken manure resolves a partisan conflict that stalled progress on limiting what all parties agree is a major Chesapeake Bay pollutant.
"This is a great thing for the state of Maryland if we can all get along and work together," said Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House committee that handles environmental issues. "It was quite a gap to bridge."
Environmentalists had pushed for stiff limits on how much fertilizer derived from chicken litter could be applied by farmers, who for decades have used waste from the Eastern Shore's poultry industry to feed crops.
Farmers contended that the limits called for too much change too fast, arguing the sudden loss of a cheap fertilizer could put them out of business.
Hogan sided with farmers, and promised them after the election the issue would be his "first fight" upon taking office. Within hours of his inauguration, Hogan halted rules written Gov. Martin O'Malley that had been three years in the making.
The move incensed environmentalists and prompted Democrats in the legislature to circumvent Hogan, introducing a bill that would implement the rules anyway.
On Wednesday, Hogan and leading Democrats announced that they had reached a compromise.
New rules from Hogan will require the most polluted farms to stop applying chicken manure immediately, while other farmers will have more time and flexibility to reduce how much they use. The rules will create a firm deadline of 2022 for all farmers.
Hogan's spokesman, Doug Mayer, said the solution "represents one of the most important steps forward in environmental policy in the last decade."
Chicken manure is full of nutrients good for corn and soybean farms that dominate parts of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but it also contains more phosphorus than the crops can absorb. Rain carries excess phosphorus into the Chesapeake Bay, fueling algae blooms that deplete oxygen levels, choke fish and contribute to the bay's "dead zones."
Depending on how much bay-polluting phosphorus already saturates their farms, farmers will have at most nine years to stop adding more to their land, under the new rules. Many will have to act within two to four years.
A new advisory committee is to help decide whether farmers deserve more time if there isn't technology available to deal with excess chicken manure, and to make sure that farmers using the so-called "phosphorus management tool" are staying on track.
The Hogan administration plans to send the new regulations to the Maryland Register for publication by Friday afternoon, launching a public review process.
The deal received tentative praise from both the agricultural community and environmentalists.
"I do not believe this will make every farmer happy," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers. "But the agreement hasn't relieved all of the concerns of the environmental community either."
A pair of environmental groups, the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, issued a joint statement saying that "our organizations would have liked to have begun using the phosphorus management tool four years ago, as Maryland promised, and as the science dictated."
"Nevertheless, these revised regulations represent progress toward reducing pollution from agriculture — which we absolutely must do to protect the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways, as well as public health."
While the environmental groups heaped praise on two Democratic lawmakers who pushed for tougher regulations, they also thanked Hogan for "listening to our concerns and trying to address them."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch brushed off the suggestion that Wednesday's deal signaled increased bipartisanship in Annapolis.
"Reasonable people can come to an agreement on things," said Busch, a Democrat. "I don't think we've been anything but bipartisan since we got here."
Sen. Paul Pinsky, the leading legislative critic of Hogan's earlier proposed phosphorus rules, announced the agreement Wednesday on the Senate floor. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, said he was satisfied enough with the compromise that he would withdraw his bill to implement the rules Hogan had halted in January. Pinsky's bill had been on the verge of receiving preliminary approval Wednesday.
Pinsky said the original Hogan rules allowed for multiple delays in implementation. He said the revised regulations allow for two one-year delays. Those delays would kick in if technology doesn't develop fast enough to create manure-to-energy facilities or some other alternative use of excess chicken manure — or whether the state has funded a transportation network to haul the unaccounted excess away to farms where it can be applied more safely.
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.