Phosphorus rules delayed [Editorial]

Alas, the regulation of farming is one of those activities that invites the kind of polarized views that one associates with Washington politics and playground fights. The recent decision by the O'Malley administration to delay new rules limiting the spread of phosphorus-laden poultry manure brought predictable results.

Some environmental groups cried "foul" (or "fowl" depending on one's point of view) while the folks at the Maryland Farm Bureau said they wouldn't be satisfied until the regulations were buried much deeper and more permanently than that. In other words, the Maryland Department of Agriculture offered a compromise and got the predictable results — dissatisfaction on both sides.

That chicken manure continues to be a problem for the Chesapeake Bay is clear to most rational people, given that the industry produces 300 million broilers each year and most of the resulting waste winds up spread on land. Some of that manure can be properly managed so that runoff doesn't pollute local streams, rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, but not always.

Even so, phosphorus is a little trickier than nitrogen, the other major component of manure that can cause pollution when used to excess, and this is where the regulations have run into trouble. Unlike nitrogen, the movement of phosphorus from land to water depends on a variety of factors including soil composition. So at the heart of the regulations was a need to regulate phosphorus on a farm-by-farm basis.

What's the economic impact of regulating phosphorus if farmers can no longer spread it on land? That's also difficult to discern precisely — how farmers would dispose of it (and how much others might have to spend on alternative low-phosphorus fertilizers to grow their crops) has not been measured. And it seems these two problems of cost and technical challenge are what caused MDA to postpone the rules for the second time this year — an "emergency" version of the regulations was delayed this summer.

Is it disappointing? Of course it is. The delay means the problem will be further neglected and therefore worsen. But administration officials say they intend to move forward with the regulations in 2014. As long as that is the case — and the rules don't suddenly get watered down — this seems reasonable.

Was this some political concession to Big Poultry by Gov. Martin O'Malley? We don't know. The governor's close ties to a corporate lawyer at Perdue Farms and his contact with Chairman Jim Perdue became an issue last year — as was his critique before all the facts were known of a lawsuit supported by a University of Maryland environmental law clinic that sought to hold accountable poultry companies and growers for water pollution caused by animal waste.

Whatever the governor's motives, we think his record on the Chesapeake Bay has been too supportive of clean-up efforts not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He has already pushed the agricultural community on pollution controls harder than any of his predecessors, and his willingness to move forward on pollution from stormwater runoff in Maryland's urban and suburban communities — the so-called "rain tax" that has stirred up such partisan ire — speaks for itself.

A related criticism that emerged last week was the finding, contained in a report from the Center for Progressive Reform, of a major backlog in Maryland's program requiring permits of large animal feeding operations. That's also concerning but hardly surprising. In this case, there's clearly a lack of personnel at the Maryland Department of the Environment to perform inspections and review plans to reduce farm-related runoff. That can be corrected in the next budget, and meanwhile, Maryland is still well ahead of other states in the Chesapeake watershed when it comes to regulating such pollution.

Still, it's obvious that many in Maryland's agriculture industry remain in denial about the harmful excessive nutrients that can be traced to animal waste (much in the same way others continue to believe the water that drains off suburban streets, parking lots and other impervious surfaces is no big deal either). That needs to change. The science contradicting these assertions is not much in dispute — at least not outside of farm bureau or builders' association political rallies.

The episode also proves once again that the business of looking out for the welfare of the nation's largest estuary (not to mention protecting clean water and human health) is bound to raise hackles with some group or other. The goal must be to achieve these outcomes with the least amount of disruption to residents, businesses and the economy. If that requires some modest delay of a few more months, or a gradual phase-in of the rules, so be it. Better to get them right than to get something immediately.

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