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Stand firm on phosphorus

Don't weaken rules to protect the Chesapeake Bay by limiting harmful phosphorus that runs off farm fields.

Last month, we suggested that Maryland's incoming governor had picked the wrong fight when he pulled regulations seeking to curb polluting phosphorus that runs off from farm fields into Maryland's waterways and can be traced primarily to chicken manure used as fertilizer, and we suggested he offer his own rules. This week, he did just that — and Gov. Larry Hogan deserves a nod for at least recognizing the necessity of such regulations. His proposal is not as bad as might have been feared and does show at least some willingness by the governor to reckon with the poultry industry, which probably would have preferred that this whole issue just go away.

But it's not good either. It's a clear step backward from the regulations the O'Malley administration had offered and the state was on the verge of finalizing when Mr. Hogan abruptly pulled them. The chief problem, in the parlance of Annapolis, is that the new rules offer too many off-ramps to divert the cause, particularly a provision that gives the state agriculture department broad authority to postpone their implementation as officials see fit.

Hogan administration officials have suggested this is mere compromise — an effort to find middle ground between concerns over the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and the added costs and paperwork the rules impose on poultry farmers. But, as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Will Baker has observed, the problem is that the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool was already a "compromise on top of a compromise on top of a compromise" before the Hogan administration ever got its hands on it.

The harm that excess phosphorus from the thousands of tons of chicken waste applied to farm fields is doing to local waters (feeding the growth of algae blooms and oxygen-deprived "dead zones") is not really in dispute, and now Mr. Hogan's voice can be added to the chorus of public concern over this worsening source of pollution. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley was slow to take appropriate action. Various versions of the PMT were offered and withdrawn several times over the last four years at the behest of the poultry industry.

There's nothing wrong with finding ways to accommodate farmers, but when is enough enough? The regulations first offered in 2011 were supposed to be in effect by now. The last version submitted by the O'Malley administration had a six-year phase-in. Six years! Surely, no one can claim that the state hasn't already made substantial accommodations to the Eastern Shore's poultry industry.

And here's the rub: While this foot dragging risks the health of the nation's largest estuary and Maryland's most important natural asset — not to mention billions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs produced by tourism, real estate, seafood and all those other livelihoods that depend on a healthy Chesapeake Bay — what do you suppose is at stake for Big Poultry? According to a study performed by Salisbury University at the urging of farmers and their allies, the financial cost is somewhere in the neighborhood of $22.5 million.

Eastern Shore poultry producers spend more on advertising. Maryland's annual seafood catch is worth more than that despite its pollution-related declines of the last several decades. And Maryland's boating industry alone is worth about 100 times that. So exactly who should be doing the compromising?

Our preference would have been for Mr. Hogan to have not inserted himself in this debate, but now that he has — and his rules have fallen short — it's up to the General Assembly to protect the interests of all Marylanders and make sure federally mandated phosphorus reduction targets are met. Whether that's accomplished through regulation or through legislation is not especially important, but if Mr. Hogan won't strengthen what he's put on the table, lawmakers will have little choice but to write more appropriate standards into law.

That's not something to be done for the sake of the 200 or so people who rallied in Annapolis Tuesday in support of PMT legislation prior to a Senate hearing but a question of simple fairness — it's about requiring those who pollute the Chesapeake Bay to clean up their own mess. That's the bottom line. If there are ways to accomplish this that are less costly or less burdensome to Eastern Shore farmers, let's pursue them by all means. But no more delays and no more excuses. The problem is not a lack of compromise, it's a failure of follow-through with these overdue restrictions.

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