The O'Malley administration is proposing regulations that would for the first time allow the state's environmental agency to police pollution from the Eastern Shore's huge poultry industry.
Under draft rules released yesterday, large chicken farms would have to get state permits and follow a list of pollution control requirements or face fines of up to $10,000 per day.
The permits would be required for about 200 farms and would allow the Maryland Department of the Environment to inspect chicken houses and take water samples in streams nearby.
Chicken manure runoff is one of the largest sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Administration officials said the rules will help restore the bay's health, when combined with other state efforts that include improving sewage treatment plants and fixing leaky urban storm water pipes.
"We believe this new permit is very protective of Maryland waters, both surface and groundwater," said Robert Summers, deputy environment secretary. "It's a good step forward in terms of dealing with these important animal waste issues."
But a chicken industry spokesman said new regulations are unnecessary and will be difficult to enforce.
"These type permits are for factories. They should not be required for family farms," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade organization.
"With Maryland facing a huge budget challenge, where is the state going to get the money and the army of trained personnel to conduct inspections on who-knows-how-many farms?"
Maryland has for years required industrial-style pollution control permits for large dairy and hog farms. But poultry was exempted when the regulations were written more than a decade ago, even though it's a far larger enterprise in the state, with 272 million chickens a year producing about a billion pounds of manure.
As evidence of water pollution from chicken litter has grown, at least a dozen states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, have required inspections and regulation of poultry houses.
Maryland proposed similar permits under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2004, but then dropped the idea when farmers complained it was too burdensome.
The Department of the Environment will take comments from the public on the proposal and issue final regulations March 31, officials said. The final rules will take effect within 120 days after that.
Environmentalists had mixed reactions to the proposal, with some praising Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration but others criticizing the permits as too weak.
"I think it's greatly needed. ... Chickens have been one of the major problems for water quality in the bay," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of a Senate environment subcommittee. "There has been a lot of fear from the agricultural community about this and a lot of resistance."
Michele Merkel, Chesapeake regional coordinator for the Waterkeepers Alliance, an environmental group, said federal law required Maryland and other states to start policing water pollution from chicken farms three years ago.
She argued that the proposal doesn't go far enough because it would leave up to state discretion whether to inspect poultry houses and monitor streams and underground water supplies for pollution.
The permits could flatly outlaw any runoff of manure into streams, Merkel said, but these don't go that far, allowing some pollution as long as the farms follow a list of rules.
"I don't think it's aggressive at all. It doesn't go far enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and it reflects that the MDE isn't serious about regulating confined animal feeding operations," said Merkel, a former attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Julie De Young, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-based Perdue Farms, the third-largest chicken company in America, said the permits proposed by Maryland are less burdensome than some federal industrial-style discharge permits. The company will have no problem with the state's new environmental program "as long as it's not overly onerous from an administrative or financial standpoint."
The regulations would require a state permit for any chicken farm with more than 125,000 birds or poultry houses of more than 75,000 square feet. About 200 of Maryland's 862 poultry farms are large enough to need permits, which would cost farmers at least $120 a year in fees.
Among other requirements, permitted farms would have to allow MDE inspectors onto their land to sample for pollution, take photographs and check manure management records. They would also have to submit annual reports to the state, declaring the numbers of animals they have, how much manure they produce and where it was spread. And they would have to maintain a 25-foot-wide filter strip of vegetation along streams and ditches. Among the requirements is that manure be kept more than 100 feet from streams.
The permits do not set a regular schedule of inspections by the state. Summers said his agency has only 35 water pollution inspectors, and they must also monitor scores of sewage treatment plants, construction sites, wetlands and other locations.
"We do not have an adequate number of inspectors to do all the inspections we'd like to do," said Summers. "So we are going to prioritize our inspections to only those that have the highest environmental and public health risks."
After chicken manure was blamed for an outbreak of toxic algae called Pfiesteria on the Pocomoke River in 1997, the state passed a law requiring most farms to have plans designed to minimize their use of fertilizer.
But under the law, there are only recommendations - not requirements - for how a poultry operation should limit runoff. Farmers can write the plans themselves. Any monitoring is by the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of the Environment.
State data show that water quality in the Pocomoke and most other waterways statewide hasn't improved since then.