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Nutrient runoff to be focus of Shore summit

The struggle over reducing nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay will take center stage this week when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. delivers on his campaign promise to "listen to farmers" and tackle their concerns about over-regulation by the state.

An all-day nutrient management summit -- planned for tomorrow in Wye Mills -- is expected to attract more than 300 farmers, poultry processors, agricultural consultants, environmental activists and state officials. They will discuss Maryland's rules and whether they ought to be changed.

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Recommendations that arise from the meeting are likely to get Ehrlich's serious consideration as his staff assembles a 2004 legislative package and seeks to acknowledge the Eastern Shore's strong support in last year's election.

The administration has ended a controversial effort by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening to hold large poultry processors responsible for the manure from chickens raised on their behalf by independent farm contractors. That "co-permitting" proposal was ruled illegal by an administrative law judge, a decision affirmed by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

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For the agricultural community, the summit offers a chance to make a case for simplified paperwork and a relaxation of some regulations.

"The nutrient management summit is a way to reopen the discussion with a more friendly state government," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, the principal lobbying and trade organization for farmers and processors. "We have a governor in Maryland who does not want to put the poultry industry and agriculture out of business."

But environmentalists say that if Maryland is to fulfill its pledge to significantly cut nutrient runoff by the end of this decade, the state can't afford to roll back regulations or avoid potentially expensive solutions for the safe handling of hundreds of millions of pounds of poultry manure.

This summer, at least two major algae blooms have occurred on Eastern Shore rivers, fueled in part by high levels of nitrogen-bearing nutrients washed into the waterways by the spring's abundant rainfall.

A survey conducted last month by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found extremely low levels of oxygen and almost no adult fish in a 250-square- mile area of deep water in the upper Chesapeake Bay. That is about 30 percent larger than a similar lifeless zone found last summer.

"We documented what people have generally believed -- that there develops in some areas of the bay a pretty big area of a lack of oxygen in the summertime," said Chris Bonzek, the lead Virginia researcher.

"After several years of drought, when farmers and people still fertilized, all the stuff got carried into the bay by the rainfall and snows. All those nutrients have come into the bay at once."

Scientists say that overuse of fertilizer, particularly manure, causes nitrogen and phosphorus to run into the bay, lowering water quality, killing underwater grasses and contributing to depleted oxygen levels that threaten fish and crabs. The more than 500 million chickens raised on the Eastern Shore each year produce billions of pounds of nutrient-heavy manure.

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Nutrient runoff was blamed for a 1997 outbreak of the fish-killing Pfiesteria piscicida bacteria, which led to 1998 legislation requiring stringent management plans for agricultural fields.

Maryland and other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have agreed to cut nutrient runoff in half by 2010 -- not just through agriculture, but also by upgrading waste-water treatment plants. Those plants are the other large source of nutrients, and Ehrlich has said funding for improvements to the plants is one of his top environmental priorities.

State officials insist the goal of this week's summit is not to back off from the commitment to reduce nutrient runoff from farms.

"There was a great deal of emotion when the law was passed, and this is an opportunity -- having had about four years of experience -- to look back and ask what needs to be changed, if anything," said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Despite the rejection of the co-permitting program, state environmental regulators actively investigate alleged incidents of overuse of fertilizer. Last year, about 64 such incidents were referred for investigation, said Jim Pettit, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.

Ehrlich plans to appear at the summit, and his "end goal is to streamline nutrient management programs and improve the implementation and effectiveness of meeting water-quality goals," said spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.

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"The governor feels like certain groups have been punished unfairly," she said. "This needs to be a collaborative effort to share the problem. It shouldn't fall on one group's shoulders."

Many farmers have complained about state regulations for the handling and transport of manure, noting it can be "a cumbersome paperwork process," Satterfield said.

Environmentalists say they support simplifying the process to ensure regulations are met, but will fight efforts to reduce the number of farms that are regulated.

"There are some improvements, those things on the edge, that we're willing to work with the department on," said Theresa Pierno, a vice president with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We're not going to support reducing the number of farms that need phosphorus-based plans. We need to do more, not less."

Closely tied to nutrient regulations is the economic fate of the poultry industry. Many farmers are worried about plans by Tyson Foods Inc. to close its processing plant near Berlin by the end of the year and eliminate 650 jobs.

A study released last month by the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology concluded that the state's poultry industry remains viable -- accounting for one out of every 12 jobs on the Eastern Shore -- and could accept modest additional environmental regulations.

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"Still, the razor-thin margins on which both broiler growers and processors operate, and the opportunities open for the processing industry at other locations, indicate that even seemingly small events or policies could worsen the prospects considerably," the report concluded.

The average chicken grown on the Eastern Shore costs 15 percent more than in any other area of the country, said Joe Chisholm, an Eastern Shore banker and chairman of a gubernatorial task force studying the industry's economics.

"What the industry needs is a consistent environmental policy, so it knows the costs of what is required of it," Chisholm said.

Environmental advocates acknowledge the economic importance of the poultry industry -- but say that any cost analysis must also weigh the impact of agricultural pollution on the Chesapeake Bay.

"There's an economic value to a clean bay," Pierno said. "You need to balance it with the economics of the watermen and the eco-tourism that comes to the region because of the environment. There are other industries to worry about protecting, too."


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