Tougher runoff laws may be in order Governor stops short of mandatory controls in bid to halt microbe

September 12, 1997|By WILLIAM F. ZORZI JR., DOUGLAS M. BIRCH AND MARCIA MYERS | WILLIAM F. ZORZI JR., DOUGLAS M. BIRCH AND MARCIA MYERS,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening predicted yesterday that stronger controls on farm runoff would be needed to combat a toxic microbe suspected of sickening 5,000 fish in a Somerset County creek and possible two watermen who live nearby.

As scientists continued to pull fish with bloody lesions from Kings Creek, a 4-mile-long tributary of the Manokin River near Princess Anne, the governor formed a "blue ribbon" commission to recommend steps to curb outbreaks of the likely culprit, Pfiesteria piscicida. He closed the creek to fishing and recreation Wednesday.

It was the second Eastern Shore waterway apparently stricken by the single-celled organism. A 7-mile stretch of the lower Pocomoke River, 15 miles south of Kings Creek, has been closed since Aug. 29 after scientists linked Pfiesteria to ailments suffered by watermen and state workers there.

Curtis Dickson, the Somerset County health officer, said yesterday that two ill watermen with ties to the Manokin River had reported symptoms similar to those suffered by those sickened on the lower Pocomoke.

"They are reporting the same kind of complaints as before -- short-term memory loss, confusion, skin rashes, burning sensation," he said. He gave no further details.

Glendening, speaking at a news conference in Annapolis, stopped just short of saying he expected legislation to impose mandatory controls on runoff of manure and fertilizer. But he made it clear he thinks the current voluntary system is not working.

Scientists have said Pfiesteria organisms apparently are stimulated into a toxic stage when waters are heavily enriched with nutrients.

While wastewater from sewage treatment plants is one source of nutrients, a far bigger one on the rural Lower Shore comes from runoff of poultry manure spread on fields as fertilizer. More than 600 million chickens are raised annually on the Delmarva Peninsula, producing far more waste than the human population.

"Common sense tells us that the problem in the water is coming from the land," Glendening said. "We must have a program of very strong reduction of the runoff, including urban, but also crop and poultry farms."

The governor later said he was leaving the question of mandatory controls to the nine-member commission. But, he suggested, "We have to go beyond voluntary [controls]."

The commission will be led by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and will include two legislators, as well as scientists, farmers and environmentalists who have yet to be named. The panel has until Nov. 1 to complete its work.

Glendening also announced he would immediately allocate $2 million to farmers statewide to plant "cover crops" this winter. Planting the cover, he said, would reduce nitrogen runoff into the Pocomoke River, Kings Creek and other waters while helping farmers throughout the state who were hurt by the summer drought.

Glendening said the governors of five states -- Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina -- have agreed to attend a regional summit on Pfiesteria in Annapolis this month. The microorganism has been blamed for killing more than 1 billion fish in eastern North Carolina and has been identified in Delaware and Virginia.

In Washington yesterday, the House approved $7 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the human health effects of Pfiesteria. The money was diverted from funds earmarked to pay unemployment benefits at the behest of two Maryland congressmen, Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest and Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, and Delaware Rep. Michael N. Castle.

Glendening said that he has asked the White House for help -- both technical and financial-- and that Carol M. Browner, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, would attend the summit.

The governor said he has added six new inspectors to focus on the problems in the Pocomoke, Kings Creek and other similar waters.

That, he said, was part of "a joint effort with the departments of Environment and Agriculture to make sure existing laws are aggressively enforced."

"Although we are greatly concerned about the very important poultry and seafood industries, we must -- and will -- take whatever action is necessary," he said.

He stressed that seafood harvested from the Chesapeake Bay is safe to eat and that Pfiesteria had not been found in the bay or any of its larger rivers.

State officials plan to next survey the Big and Little Annemessex rivers, which lie between the Manokin and Pocomoke rivers.

State officials learned of the latest attack from Brian Parker, 30, of Manokin, who called a new state hot line Wednesday after he caught fish with lesions from the Stewart Neck Road bridge across Kings Creek. While he doesn't feel sick, Parker said yesterday, "My fishing season is over, because of the stuff in the water. I put my fishing poles up. I'll find a new hobby."

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