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Too much manure, too little oversight

Is it time for a moratorium on new Eastern Shore poultry houses?

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment of Maryland agriculture programs and offered kind words, particularly compared to how it viewed other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Suggesting Maryland's efforts to curb animal waste, for instance, were "robust and well-implemented" might be seen as something of a tribute to Gov. Larry Hogan, whose support for the controversial "Phosphorus Management Tool," a program aimed at reducing the amount of phosphorus from chicken manure going into Eastern Shore streams, has been widely praised by environmentalists.

Yet Mr. Hogan's efforts — which aren't due to be fully implemented until 2023 at the earliest — may be for naught if a better use isn't found for poultry waste (which today is mostly used as a crop fertilizer but too often on fields that are already saturated with phosphorus) and Eastern Shore tributaries aren't more closely monitored to judge the efficacy of the PMT program by measuring the excess nutrients that contribute to algae blooms. All that algae reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water when it dies, creating dead zones and eventually killing aquatic life.

Both issues (too much phosphorus and too little monitoring) are raised in the latest analysis produced by the Environmental Integrity Project, which is scheduled for release today. The authors conclude that not only is the threat from the Delmarva poultry industry growing — with more than 200 new poultry houses permitted for construction since the fall of 2014 — but that the government will have too little data to judge whether PMT limits on manure application have are effective because of the closing of local monitoring stations in 2013.

As a result, the report calls for a moratorium on new poultry house construction, a proposal certain to draw fire from Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and other major poultry producers. But while such action would be contested — in Maryland, it would require Mr. Hogan's Department of the Environment to deny discharge permits — there is some precedent for it.

In recent weeks, a moratorium on new, larger poultry houses has received serious consideration in Somerset County, where lower Eastern Shore residents have grown tired of living among the county's numerous poultry houses, each of which may contain 20,000 birds. In addition to potentially compromising local water quality, the houses generate dust and odors, truck traffic and possible asthma attacks for neighbors forced to inhale the noxious fumes. Similar concerns have been voiced in neighboring Accomack County, Va., where at least 84 new poultry houses are planned. Even the growers themselves may welcome a moratorium if it means producers might have to pay them a little more — or at least gain leverage in what is otherwise regarded as a lopsided contractual relationship with big producers having much of the advantage.

How long might a moratorium last? Perhaps just until the industry finds a better way to dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of poultry litter generated each year. The once promising idea of creating a waste-to-energy plant and burning the manure appears to have faded. Other possibilities, even composting the waste and marketing it as commercial fertilizer, aren't creating sufficient demand, as most alternatives remain at the experimental stage. Right now, manure that might have been spread on phosphorus-saturated fields is likely to be trucked further north or inland where it would be spread on fields and could still be swept into waterways after a heavy rain.

No doubt Governor Hogan had thought he had "disposed" of the poultry manure issue when he crafted his PMT compromise this spring, but alas, that's not the finger-in-the-dike nature of Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. And frankly, it's not his fault that this remains an issue or that Maryland lost EPA funding for its water quality monitoring efforts two years ago. That testing was an outgrowth of the pfiesteria scare of the 1990s, but the data is just as important today. Otherwise, how could anyone judge whether the new rules regarding poultry waste are proving to be an effective strategy to clean up local waters?

Still, the problems don't appear insurmountable, nor is Mr. Hogan's popularity likely to be put at risk if he stands up for clean water — and for protecting Eastern Shore neighborhoods. The governor acted responsibly in moving forward with the Phosphorous Management Tool, and he ought to make sure his efforts aren't undermined, as the EIP report warns. A moratorium on new poultry houses makes a lot of sense — at least until sufficient protections are in place.

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