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Legislation coming on farm pollution?

Legislation coming on farm pollution?
Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, is calling for Gov. Larry Hogan to spell out how he'll deal with phosphorus pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from too much poultry manure being spread on Eastern Shore farm fields. (File photo)

A key Maryland lawmaker is calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to say what he'll do about Eastern Shore farm pollution now that he's withdrawn O'Malley administration regulations.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, wrote Hogan Wednesday expressing concern over the new governor's decision to halt rules that would have prevented Shore farmers from spreading phosphorus-rich poultry manure on fields already saturated with the polluting nutrient.

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Within hours of taking office, Hogan pulled five regulations scheduled to be published last Friday, including the phosphorus rule. He said he was holding them up for further review and public input.  But during last year's campaign and immediately after his election, he had said he would fight the regulations as harmful to Maryland's poultry industry and to Eastern Shore farmers.

Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote that Hogan's action had placed Maryland in an "untenable position" of being unable to reduce phosphorus runoff enough to meet a federal mandate to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The House panel chairman said he is calling together a group of farmers, watermen, environmentalists, legislators and local officials to identify a "legislative solution" to the farm phosphorus problem.

Phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage and farm and suburban runoff feed algae blooms in the bay and contribute to the formation of a sprawling "dead zone" in the depths, where fish and shellfish can't get enough oxygen to breathe. Phosphorus levels are worsening in Shore rivers, where poultry manure is widely used to fertilize crop fields.

Though recommended by scientists and backed by environmentalists, the rules were fiercely opposed by farm groups and Maryland's poultry industry, which argued they would be crippled by the costs of having to dispose of more than 200,000 tons of excess chicken manure and find alternative fertilizers.

Barve wrote that lawmakers, likewise concerned about the regulations' economic impact, last year commissioned a study of them by Salisbury University. That study found the phosphorus limits could cost farmers about $22.5 million if phased in over six years, with the state boosting farm subsidies about $15.5 million over the same period to help ease the transition.

But that study was not meant to end all discussion of dealing with the farm phosphorus problem, Barve wrote. He called on Hogan to spell out his plan.

In an interview, Barve said he understands Hogan's discomfort with regulations taking effect before he has a chance to review them. He said he's to meet with Hogan Thursday, and plans to raise the issue then.

"I'm hoping his objective is to propose something in the alternative," Barve said. Of his move to begin considering legislation, Barve said, "As legislators we always reserve the right to take action, but we prefer to work with the governor."

Through a spokeswoman, Hogan said that "no one cares more (than the governor) about our environment and our state's most treasured natural resource - the Chesapeake Bay."

Erin Montgomery, Hogan's press secretary, added that the governor was looking forward to sitting down with Barve to talk about how they could work together to achieve what Hogan called their "shared goal of protecting Maryland's land, water and air."

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