The O'Malley administration's 11th-hour move to curb Eastern Shore farmers' use of chicken manure as fertilizer appears likely to go through, unless incoming Republican Gov. Larry Hogan acts quickly Wednesday afternoon to stop it.
As one of his last acts before stepping down, Earl "Buddy" Hance, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's agriculture secretary, signed a "Notice of Final Action" to adopt the controversial "Phosphorus Management Tool" regulation on Friday. He then submitted it to the Maryland Register.
The rules, which are backed by environmentalists but opposed by Shore farmers and the poultry industry, are scheduled for publication in the Register on Friday. Under Maryland law, they would take effect 10 days later, on Feb. 2.
The rules, which the O'Malley administration had promised for years, are aimed at curbing nutrient pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from excessive uses of manure on farm fields. Many fields on the lower Shore, the heart of the state's poultry industry, are contaminated with too much phosphorus from repeated manure applications.
Activists contend there's enough poultry waste generated every year by Shore chicken farms to fill the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium as well as the Redskins' FedEx Field. Agricultural runoff is the leading source of nutrient pollution causing algae blooms and dead zones in the bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"After ten years of scientific study and a legislatively mandated economic study, it is time for swift implementation of this pollution-reducing tool." said Karla Raettig of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Poultry and grain farmers on the Shore have complained the restrictions would be crippling to them. Many of those who raise chickens would no longer be able to spread their flocks' manure on their or nearby fields, and would have to pay to dispose of it. Grain farmers would lose access to a cheap if polluting source of fertilizer, forcing them to buy more costly chemical plant food. A study commissioned by the O'Malley administration concluded late last year a six-year phase-in of the rules could cost farmers and the poultry industry $22.5 million. O'Malley proposed increasing state funds to at least partially offset farmers' costs of disposing of an estimated 228,000 tons of excess manure and of buying more costly chemical fertilizer. But Hogan has sided with critics of the rules, saying they would kill the poultry industry, put farmers out of business and destroy the Shore's agrarian way of life. Shortly after his election he told the Maryland Farm Bureau that his "first fight" after taking office would be against these regulations.
He'll have to act quickly Wednesday if he wants to keep them from taking effect. According to an opinion issued last month by then-Attorney General Douglas Gansler, the rules can be withdrawn or simply held up by preventing them from being published in the register, which is printed and posted online every two weeks.
Brian Morris, chief information officer for the Secretary of State's office, which publishes the Maryland Register, said Tuesday that because of printing schedules, the latest his staff could remove something from the Friday edition before it goes to press would be around 4 p.m. on Wednesday. That's only about four hours after Hogan takes the oath of office.
State Sen. Joseph M. Getty, a Carroll County Republican who's leaving the legislature to become Hogan's policy and legislative director, said Monday night that the incoming administration had made no decision on whether to prevent the phosphorus rules from being published, or to deal with them after they've taken effect.
Valerie T. Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said Tuesday that even if Hogan doesn't act quickly enough to prevent the phosphorus rules from going on the books, there's still time to deal with them before they really affect farmers. The limits are phased in in such a way that farmers aren't required to actually start cutting back on manure use for about 18 months, she said. That would give the new administration time to initiate a rulemaking of its own to withdraw or change the regulation.