State fertilizer rules moving ahead over objections

State officials are plowing ahead with new rules on how and when farmers can fertilize their fields, despite last-minute objections from environmentalists that the proposed limits have been weakened in an apparent bid to mollify agricultural interests.

The state Department of Agriculture plans to publish proposed changes to its "nutrient management" regulations on Dec. 2 in the Maryland Register, spokeswoman Julianne Oberg said in an email.

State officials have said the new rules, which deal with the spreading of animal manure and sewage sludge on farm fields, are intended to reduce polluted runoff from farms as part of Maryland's effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Among the proposed changes are a ban on putting down any fertilizer in winter and tighter limits in the fall, requiring farmers to store their animals' waste until spring or find other uses for it.

The changes were generally welcomed by environmental groups when first announced three weeks ago. Some activists, notably former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad of Annapolis, thought they were still far too weak, but others saw them as a good first step toward tackling agricultural pollution.

On Monday, however, environmental groups issued a statement calling the changes "disappointing," and complaining that state officials have loosened the proposed restrictions that had been informally aired earlier this year. The public criticism comes after behind-the-scenes appeals to close what activists called a serious "loophole" in the new rules, or at least delay their publication for more discussion.

Jenn Aiosa, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that while activists still liked some proposed changes, they were particularly concerned about a loophole that would allow farmers to continue spreading animal manure or sludge in the late fall, when it's likely to pollute streams and ground water. The rules would allow late-fall application if a farm doesn't have room to store its animal manure until spring, she said.

"It's maybe one step forward, two steps back," said Tommy Landers of Environment Maryland. The rules tweaks are "especially concerning," he said, following Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent letter blasting a University of Maryland law clinic for pursing a water pollution lawsuit against an Eastern Shore chicken farmer and Perdue Farms Inc., the large Salisbury-based poultry company.

Oberg, the state agriculture spokeswoman, said officials are still "working with the environmental community" so they'll understand the proposed rule changes.

The Maryland Farm Bureau, meanwhile, continues to oppose the new rules, arguing in a recent letter to O'Malley that they would put state farmers at a competitive disadvantage to growers in other states, taking land out of production and even risking higher runoff pollution by limiting when farmers can fertilize their fields.

Once published, the state will take public comments for 45 days on the proposed regulations before finalizing them.