Will he or won't he? With just nine weeks left in Gov. Martin O'Malley's term, time grows short for him to act if he intends to go through with a much-delayed plan to curb Eastern Shore farmers' use of chicken manure in order to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Those familiar with the intricacies of Maryland's regulatory process say Friday is the last day for O'Malley to act if he hopes to complete rules before leaving office that scientists say will help reduce the pollution fouling the bay.
Farmers, on the other hand, hope he delays or drops the plan altogether, as they contend it's too costly and unnecessary.
Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has said he'd pull the plug on the proposed "phosphorus management tool," as it's called. He has sided with farmers, predicting manure curbs would "basically decimate an entire way of life on the Shore." He has vowed to seek some other way of dealing with the bay's pollution problem that doesn't cost farmers.
The O'Malley administration originally declared nearly four years ago it would seek to put limits on farmers' fertilization practices amid warnings from scientists that many fields on the Eastern Shore have been repeatedly over-fertilized. The excess plant nutrient phosphorus from the manure applications is getting into the region's water ways, they warned, and contributing to algae blooms and the bay's "dead zone."
Last year, state agriculture officials twice unveiled their proposal, only to pull it back each time for further review as farmers and the poultry industry protested.
Then, under pressure from lawmakers, the administration this year commissioned a study of the plan's economic impact.
In late September, with the study still not out, O'Malley was asked if he'd go through with the limits even if the review predicted significant costs for the Shore's farmers and its poultry industry.
"Ever known us to go back?" he asked.
The Salisbury University study, finally released last Friday, projected that manure limits could cost the Shore's chicken growers, grain farmers and related businesses $22 million to nearly $53 million. Farmers would have to pay more for chemical fertilizer that lacks phosphorus than they do for manure that's rich in the nutrient. And chicken growers would have to pay to dispose of their birds' waste instead of having it spread at little or no cost on farm fields that are often already saturated with phosphorus.
After the study's release, state Agriculture Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance said officials wanted to review it before deciding what to do. Officials had said they planned to phase the limits in over several years, while increasing state subsidies for farmers to help them cover their added costs. The state already subsidizes shipping manure from the lower Shore to other areas where it can be used as fertilizer with less risk of getting into the bay.
"All the options are on the table," Hance said last week.
Hogan takes office Jan. 21. If O'Malley wants to get the limits in place before he leaves, the proposed rule must be sent promptly to a joint legislative committee that reviews regulations, advocates say. Then the rule would need to be published in the Maryland Register by Dec. 1. That would give just enough time, barring some hitch, to provide the legally required number of days for public comment before it can be finalized.
Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said this week she believed the economic impact study confirmed farmers' complaints that the regulations would be very costly. She questioned how the cash-strapped state could find sufficient funds to ease the burden sufficiently on farmers. And she reiterated a hope the plan could be tabled for further study - including whether it's even needed, given all the conservation efforts farmers have already made.
"It will be costly," acknowledged Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. But even so, she contended, it would be cheaper to help farmers switch to what she called "a more controlled fertilizer application" than pay for reducing phosphorus pollution in some other way, such as upgrading more waste-water treatment plants.
Swanson said a gradual phase-in made sense, given the changes farmers face. But she noted that her commission, representing lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, got a reminder last week from the Environmental Protection Agency that all the states in the bay watershed need to do more to meet pollution-reduction targets, including for phosphorus.
"We're not on track," she said the EPA presentation showed. While sewage treatment plants have made more than enough progress at reducing nutrient pollution in their discharges, she said efforts to curb agricultural and storm-water runoff do not appear to be making enough progress so far to meet future targets.
"Maryland seems to be one of the jurisdictions in the best shape," she said, compared to other bay states. "But the point is, Maryland is still behind, and the phosphorus management tool would give a gigantic boost in the right direction."