Pa. to require farmers to stop polluting Bay's lifeline Law curbs runoff into Susquehanna

May 06, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

In a major step toward restoring the Chesapeake Bay, Pennsylvania passed legislation yesterday requiring farmers to stop polluting the bay's lifeline, the Susquehanna River, with manure and fertilizer.

The action puts pressure on Maryland and Virginia, since both states have a greater stake in the bay's health than Pennsylvania, yet rely mainly on voluntary efforts by farmers.

In Harrisburg, the state Senate unanimously approved the landmark bill requiring farms with large numbers of cows, hogs and chickens to control the use and runoff of manure and fertilizer.

The measure targets farms near the Susquehanna, the 440-mile-long waterway that crosses the state, enters the northern bay and is the estuary's largest source of fresh water -- and pollution.

The legislation, debated for six years, cleared the Pennsylvania House of Representatives earlier this year and is expected to get the signature of Gov. Robert P. Casey.

This would make Pennsylvania the first state in the Chesapeake watershed -- and one of the first in the nation -- to adopt mandatory controls on farm pollution.

The Pennsylvania bill, affecting 15 to 20 percent of farms near the Susquehanna, was backed by an unusual alliance: environmentalists and the agricultural lobby.

"I hope it's the first of . . . a new generation of legislation to deal with what is emerging as a more and more important problem," said William Matuszeski, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay program office in Annapolis.

Farms are the biggest single source of nutrients fouling the bay, according to an EPA computer study. The principal nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nutrients, which also come from sewage, housing developments and air pollution, feed massive growths of algae. These "blooms" deprive underwater grasses of sunlight and consume oxygen needed by fish and shellfish.

According to the EPA's computer study, more than 50 percent of the nitrogen and about 40 percent of the phosphorus reaching the bay come from overuse of manure and chemical fertilizer on cropland.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, livestock herds and chicken flocks produce more manure than is needed to fertilize available

cropland. Lancaster County alone produces about 5 million tons of manure a year from about 5,000 farms.

Aided by government grants, many farmers already are building sheds and tanks to keep manure from being washed into streams.

Pennsylvania Rep. Jeffrey W. Coy, sponsor of the nutrient management bill, said he realized years ago that cleaning up streams, ground water and the bay would require all farmers to help.

"We're after the bad actors," said Mr. Coy, a Democrat whose district is in southeastern Pennsylvania. "We admit we have some of them."

The bill requires farms with more than 2,000 pounds of cows, hogs or poultry for every acre of land to control the use and runoff of manure and chemical fertilizers.

The measure aims for no net loss of nutrients from farmland, meaning that crops ought to consume all the nitrogen and phosphorus in manure and fertilizer applied to those fields.

Pennsylvania's farm organizations supported the bill, though not without bitter debates.

"I don't think farmers are tickled pink," said Richard Prether of the Pennsylvania Farmers Association. "It's more regulation, and farmers do not like more regulation."

Mr. Prether said farmers backed the bill because they sensed mandatory control was inevitable, and because they were able to get the legislation revised to ease concerns about government red tape.

Enforcement, for instance, is left in the hands of local soil conservation offices, which already work with farmers to curb cropland erosion.

Environmentalists say they hope that Pennsylvania's action will prompt Maryland and Virginia to adopt similar measures.

"We're not saying every farm in Maryland and Virginia should be doing this," said Robert G. Hoyt, senior vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, adding that "a mandatory approach is necessary. . . ."

According to the foundation, precise projections of the legislation's impact will take time to develop.

The position of the Maryland administration is that Pennsylvania's action deserves praise, but voluntary measures are working in Maryland, said Page W. Boinest, spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But Maryland Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, who has unsuccessfully pushed for farm legislation, said that Maryland and Virginia must take a strong stand like Pennsylvania's.

"Our actions have been much too weak," said the Democrat from Anne Arundel County. "If we acted just one-fifth as aggressively with agriculture as we did with wastewater treatment plants, we would really be turning the corner on the bay. But we're just not getting it."

Just last week, a bay-related action by Pennsylvania officials drew strong criticism from Maryland's Freshwater Fisheries Division.

Pennsylvania's fish commission approved limited use of the grass carp, an Asian species, to control vegetation in ponds. The fish grows to 35 pounds and each day consumes its own body weight. Maryland experts fear that it could damage bay habitats if flooding allows it to escape from landlocked waterways into Chesapeake tributaries.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.