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Lawmakers scrutinize Hogan farm pollution rules, mull taking own action

Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to curb poultry manure runoff from Eastern Shore farms sparked spirited debate Tuesday, as environmentalists, administration officials and farmers sparred over whether the rules would finally resolve the longstanding problem, or let pollution keep washing into the Chesapeake Bay for years to come.

Environmentalists urged a Senate panel to act on a bill that would codify farm phosphorus regulations drawn up under Gov. Martin O'Malley. They said they're concerned there's too much room for delay in rules the Hogan administration released only a few hours before the hearing.

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But administration officials and farm group leaders opposed legislative action, arguing that they're committed to following through, but want to be able to give farmers extra time if needed to make a sweeping change in how the Shore's leading industry operates.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, sponsor of the bill, said he was glad his legislation had prompted the Hogan administration to act after pulling the plug on the O'Malley rules just before they were to take effect. But Pinsky said that after quickly perusing the Hogan rules, he believed they were significantly weaker than those they are supposed to replace.

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"The regulations that are proposed are very, very loose, and it worries me," said Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.

At issue is how best to deal with farm runoff of phosphorus-rich animal manure, which scientists testified is a significant source of pollution causing algae blooms and dead zones in the bay.

While some parts of the bay are showing improved water quality, phosphorus levels in Shore rivers are worsening and have been for decades, said Scott Phillips, with the U.S. Geological Survey. Much of it is coming from fields fertilized with poultry manure so often the soils are saturated, he said, so that phosphorus washes off whenever it rains.

Hogan said Monday his plan, unlike O'Malley's, would wean farmers from using poultry manure without hitting them so hard in the pocketbook. While banning further manure use immediately on fields with the worst phosphorus levels, Hogan's rules would give farmers seven years - one more than O'Malley would have - to completely stop overfertilzing with manure.

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Moreover, the rules allow for further delays if officials decide poultry growers don't have viable alternative uses for their manure, or if there isn't an affordable system in place to haul it to faraway farms, where it can be spread without posing water quality problems.

Pinsky noted that the rules Hogan is proposing wouldn't take effect until after the 90-day legislative session ends, leaving open the possiblity that nothing would happen for another year. Environmentalists noted that under O'Malley, regulations had been promised for years but repeatedly pulled back under farmers' objections.

"There have been so many false starts," said Eric Schaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, "I just don't' have confidence that we're going to get a rule that doesn't continue that pattern of delay."

"We've got to draw a line in the sand," insisted William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who earlier had presided over an Annapolis rally urging lawmakers not to "backtrack" on bay cleanup measures. "This bill is the bare minimum .. to start to improve water quality."

But administration officials defended the new rules, arguing they're better than O'Malley's because they reduce pollution while looking out for the viability of the state's poultry industry. And they insisted the problem could be better dealt with by regulation than through legislation.

"I want to assure you, we're not trying to lay out a shell game," Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder told members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "We're committed to cleaning up the bay, to improving our water quality."

More time and unspecified funds are needed to come up with options for what do with an estimated 228,000 tons of excess manure annually, officials said. Technologies to generate electricity or heat from the animal waste are being eyed, but have yet to demonstrate their viability on such a scale.

Bartenfelder contended he needs flexibility to tweak the effort, which legislation would not afford. He got support from his predecessor, former secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance, who volunteered that he did not blame Hogan for pulling the rules he and his staff had developed.

"It strikes me that everyboy's pretty much in agreement about the problem -- and that it's a significant problem," said Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We really are talking about the timing of a solution that basically the administration, legislators, environmentalists and much of the farm community agrees about."

Colby Ferguson, speaking for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said that with the changes Hogan has made, farmers are no longer as concerned about the impact of the regulations.

"We understand the science now, we're fully aware of it, and we understand we've got to be better stewards of the land," he said.

And Lynne Hoot, spokeswoman for the Maryland grain producers, assured skeptical legislators that if Hogan doesn't follow through, they could pass a law next year, "and we won't have a leg to stand on if we don't' get it done this year."

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