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A group of Maryland lawmakers has crafted an elegant solution for one of the Chesapeake Bay's more pressing pollution concerns — how to dispose of excess poultry manure. The proposal would not only spare chicken farmers much of the burden of dealing with the waste, it has the added advantage of reducing costs for state taxpayers.

The Poultry Litter Management Act set to be unveiled Tuesday would shift the burden for manure disposal from contract growers (the farmers who raise chickens in poultry houses) to the large poultry companies like Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms. Growers with excess manure — more than they can sell or use to fertilize their own fields, for example — would no longer have to pay for a third party to cart off the waste and dispose of it elsewhere.

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That's a potentially significant savings. State officials have estimated that farmers produce about 228,000 tons of excess manure each year. It's a number that's expected to grow, in part, because Maryland has gotten more serious about protecting Eastern Shore rivers and streams from excess phosphorus. Under "Phosphorus Management Tool" regulations approved by Gov. Larry Hogan last year, the amount of poultry waste farmers can spread on fields already saturated with the nutrient is severely restricted.

But here's where it gets even better. Maryland taxpayers currently help underwrite the cost of transporting manure elsewhere. If poultry companies bore that burden instead — advocates compare it to cleaning up after your pets on a daily stroll around the neighborhood — taxpayers would stand to save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Obviously, poultry companies are likely to oppose the idea because it means raising their cost of production — but no more than $4 million annually, according to the measure's advocates, which is chicken feed for an industry with a production value of close to $1 billion each year. Nor is the practice particularly novel — Arkansas poultry producers have been held responsible for proper manure disposal under a decade-old court-supervised legal settlement, a case brought by victims of pollution downstream in Oklahoma.

The plan proposed by Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway, Montgomery County Del. A. Shane Robinson and others ought to attract bipartisan support in the General Assembly. After all, how many anti-pollution programs stand to benefit family farmers and taxpayers alike? And it's not as if poultry growers don't deserve the help — there is growing public awareness of the restrictions placed on farmers by big poultry companies (even to speak out about their plight) and how difficult that relationship has become for farmers.

That's not to suggest that this latest poultry litter proposal would be the final word about animal waste and the threat it poses to Maryland waters. Environmentalists remain concerned about whether Maryland is monitoring phosphorus pollution closely enough to gauge the effectiveness of the PMT, which will not be fully implemented until 2023.

There are also concerns that the Eastern Shore poultry industry may be on the cusp of a broad expansion, with larger poultry houses generating not only more waste but dust, odors and truck traffic. Such growth would seem unwise while Maryland continues to struggle with how best to deal with poultry waste — and it's not surprising that the issue has become quite controversial in places like Somerset County where some local residents have pushed for a moratorium on new poultry house construction.

Last year, some Maryland lawmakers proposed taxing poultry companies directly to help pay for waste disposal, perhaps as much as $15 million annually. The measure found little support in leadership. This is a much better solution, one that reduces government involvement and expense while helping farmers reduce their own costs and placing the burden for cleanup where it should be. That makes it a win-win-win with potentially the biggest beneficiaries all those Marylanders who love to boat, swim, fish, crab or otherwise enjoy Eastern Shore tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay. Reducing polluted runoff from farm fields saturated with nitrogen and phosphorus means fewer algae blooms and so-called "dead zones" that severely threaten water quality.

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