State withdraws farm pollution regulation

Maryland officials pulled back a proposed regulation Monday aimed at reducing farm runoff polluting the Chesapeake Bay after chicken growers warned it could cripple the state's lucrative poultry industry if imposed now.

The state Department of Agriculture announced it had withdrawn its request to make immediate changes to rules governing where farmers may use chicken manure to fertilize their crops, two days before a scheduled legislative hearing on the proposal.

Agriculture Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance said in a statement that the O'Malley administration wants to give farmers more time to adjust to the changes and intends to resubmit them next month after meeting with "key stakeholders." The rules, which would have taken effect this fall, would be put off until next year at the earliest.

The department had proposed emergency regulations in July that would require the use of a new tool developed by the University of Maryland for identifying which farm fields should not be fertilized with chicken manure. According to researchers, more than 80 percent of the fields sampled on the Lower Eastern Shore and nearly 50 percent statewide are saturated with phosphorus, one of the plant nutrients in manure and a contributor to the algae blooms and dead zones plaguing the bay and its tributaries.

Valerie Connelly, lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said crop farmers, chicken growers and others had complained that uncertainty about where manure could be used for fertilizer, and the lack of ready alternatives, threatened to disrupt the poultry industry.

"They just need some time where we could phase this in," she said. While farm groups had been pressing for a four-year delay on the new rule, Connelly said they're willing to consider sooner if suitable alternatives have been fleshed out.

Maryland ranked eighth among states in chicken production last year, raising 304 million birds worth more than $800 million, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group. But those birds produce hundreds of millions of pounds of manure annually, and manure runoff accounts for 26 percent of the phosphorus getting into the bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental groups expressed disappointment with the delay, but praised the O'Malley administration for agreeing in the meantime to strengthen the proposed regulation. In particular, they say there was a loophole that would have let farmers under certain circumstances keep spreading manure on fields where there was a substantial risk it would run off into nearby streams.

Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, acknowledged that cutting back on use of manure to grow corn and soybeans on the Shore will cost some farmers more to buy chemical fertilizer. But she said state officials had declared three years ago that limits on fertilizing with chicken manure were needed to help clean up the bay. They need to figure out now how to make it happen, she said.

"If you … let this go, then there's that much more phosphorus built up in the soils on the Shore," said Velma Smith, a water quality analyst with the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington. "The difficulty with delay is you make the problem harder, not unlike the federal debt."

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