A month after blocking hotly disputed environmental regulations drawn up by his predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday that he is putting out his own rules to curb Chesapeake Bay pollution from farms — including an immediate ban on spreading poultry manure on some Eastern Shore fields where the water-quality threat is greatest.
But Hogan also vowed to look out for poultry and grain growers, saying he's more slowly phasing in the restrictions on farmers' use of animal manure as fertilizer so that the costs of compliance won't put them out of business.
Flanked by aides, Hogan outlined what he described as a "fair and balanced" plan for tackling runoff from farms that for years have overfertilized their crops with poultry manure rich in bay-fouling phosphorus. He said his approach should bring together environmentalists and farmers, who've been at loggerheads over the issue.
Hogan's announcement drew guarded praise from environmentalists, who had sharply criticized his earlier move to stop the O'Malley administration's rules.
"We're happy that they're taking the problem seriously," said Alison Proust, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But she and other environmentalists said they needed to review the details of his proposal to decide whether it's strong enough.
Hogan's announcement came as pressure built on him to describe how he would deal with the farm phosphorus problem. A state Senate hearing is scheduled Tuesday on legislation that would put into law the O'Malley administration rules that Hogan blocked.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reminded Hogan's administration in a letter that Maryland is required to issue such rules or come up with another way to meet farm pollution-reduction targets set by the federal agency.
Hogan defended his decision to block the O'Malley rules, which he contended would kill agriculture on the Shore. Many poultry growers would have to find someplace else to put massive amounts of animal waste, while many grain growers would have to buy less-polluting but more expensive fertilizer.
"Like everyone else, I want to clean up the bay," Hogan said. "But I reject the idea that we must destroy a way of life on the Eastern Shore to make that happen. I'm confident that we can do better."
Farm runoff is a leading source of bay pollution, and scientists for years have highlighted a problem with the widespread use on the Shore of phosphorus-rich poultry manure to fertilize fields already saturated with the bay-fouling nutrient. O'Malley administration officials had estimated that 228,000 tons of poultry manure now spread annually should no longer be allowed on fields with high levels of phosphorus. Many of those fields are on the lower Shore, where the state's poultry industry is concentrated.
Environmentalists backed the O'Malley rules, which would have phased in restrictions over six years. But poultry and farm groups opposed them, contending that the industry and many farmers would be crushed. A Salisbury University study estimated the overall cost to the region at $22.5 million, even with millions in additional state subsidies provided for farmers.
Hogan said that protecting and restoring the bay was his top priority, but he made no apologies for blocking the O'Malley rules. He said that "protecting the bay is a shared responsibility, and placing disproportionate burdens on any region or any one group is unfair."
He said he has tweaked the O'Malley regulations so they'll kick in faster, but also take longer to fully take effect — over seven years, rather than six — so farmers have more time to adjust.
As soon as the rules are adopted, fertilizing with animal manure would be banned outright on fields already saturated with the highest levels of phosphorus. State officials estimate those fields make up 21 percent of the croplands on the lower Shore.
Farmers for the first time would be required to report their soil phosphorus levels to the state. Meanwhile, state officials plan to begin studying the economic impact of the phosphorus limits on 1,000 acres required to make the change right away.
The new plan also would add an extra year to the six-year phase-in called for under O'Malley's rules. That would allow the state to better assess how the rules are working, officials said, and to seek development of new technologies that use manure or help manage its environmental impacts better.
Hogan said the state would increase its investment in alternative uses for manure and in transporting it to farms where it could be used without polluting. He also said he'd include an unspecified amount of funds in his budget starting this year that would help farmers pay for alternative fertilizers.
Farm and poultry industry leaders, who attended the announcement, endorsed Hogan's approach. Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said agriculture leaders had recently acknowledged something needed to be done and suggested to the administration the immediate ban on manure use on the most phosphorus-saturated fields.
Chuck Fry, the farm bureau president and a Frederick County dairy farmer, called Hogan's approach "a step in the right direction," though he acknowledged that even with more time, complying will still be a challenge for some farmers.
"It's just a matter of finding the resources to do what we need to do," he said.