Farming blamed for bay pollution Cleanup enforcement efforts called weak MUDDYING THE WATERS

March 21, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- When pollution closed Lake Merle to swimming, it didn't take long to find the major source of contamination.

State inspectors discovered that manure from a herd of about 100 dairy cows had fouled a stream, flooding the 10-acre lake east of here with disease-causing bacteria.

But it has taken nearly four years to stop the pollution because the state has gone easy on the farmer. Given until April 1990 to do something about the problem, he missed the state's deadline and nothing happened. Only now, after receiving a generous state grant, is he building a concrete tank to store the manure.

"It's unfortunate that it's taken four years to get something going," said Rob Wolotira, a marine biologist who lives near Lake Merle and has complained about its condition to the state.

Though Merle has since been reopened for swimming, Mr. Wolotira said he still shuns it because algae blooms, fed by manure, turn the lake into a foul-smelling "pea soup."

Over the years, the Maryland Department of the Environment has hit polluting industries with stern cleanup orders and stiff fines. But when the polluter is a farmer, the state turns hesitant, even though agriculture contributes heavily to Chesapeake Bay pollution. Some other examples:

* Runoff of manure and mud from a dairy farm in Howard County has degraded a Patuxent River tributary for more than a decade, even though the land in Patuxent River State Park is leased from the state. The farmer said he could not afford to fix the problem, and the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages the park, until recently would not apply for government grants to finance the work.

* In western Baltimore County near Woodstock, complaints about erosion caused by horses from a horse stable were passed back and forth between government agencies, until the case finally was dropped.

* In Frederick County, a dairy farm continues to pollute Catoctin Creek, even though the state knows about the problem. A manure pit built with government help leaks because it was poorly installed, and the farmer has threatened to sell his land to developers if pressed to make repairs.

Maryland tries to curb agricultural pollution by offering farmers a helping hand and recently pledged to provide more financial help and technical advice. But farmers generally face little pressure to clean up.

"It's something [state officials] don't want to deal with," said Frank S. Payer, a biologist who until recently investigated farm-pollution complaints for the state Department of the Environment. He was laid off last November in a budget-cutting move that eliminated six inspectors.

Mr. Payer said that in seven years on the job he often was hindered from requiring or even helping farmers to stop polluting. He said Maryland goes easy on farmers because of their political clout. "The ag lobby is hellbent on preventing regulatory control," he said.

On a recent tour of the state's dairy region in Frederick and Carroll counties, Mr. Payer pointed out farm after farm where manure is polluting waterways, cows are eroding stream banks or manure storage tanks are leaking.

It is a long way from Lake Merle to the Chesapeake Bay, but both suffer from a similar malady -- an oversupply of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from manure and fertilizer. Nutrients help plants and animals grow, but a glut upsets the bay's ecological balance and harms aquatic life.

Nutrients come from many places, including sewage treatment plants and air pollution. But farms are the biggest source of nutrients fouling the bay, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Steve Weber, vice president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, recently complained about "outlandish and somewhat overblown stories of environmental degradation" caused by farmers. But the EPA has estimated that 48 percent of the phosphorus and 38 percent of the nitrogen -- the state Department of Environment's estimate is 29 percent -- reaching Maryland waters come from croplands and farm animals.

Farms often become polluters when too much fertilizer -- either chemicals or manure -- is spread on fields. What the crops cannot absorb washes off or seeps down through the soil into the ground water.

On about 4,500 farms with large numbers of animals, the main problem is controlling the runoff of their waste. There are nearly 140,000 dairy cattle in Maryland, and each can produce up to 100 pounds of manure a day. Overall, the state has more than 10 times as many farm animals as people.

Herds of cattle, hogs and horses also degrade local streams by trampling down the banks. Erosion then muddies the water and smothers gravelly stream bottoms where fish feed and lay their eggs.

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