Glendening's bay policy is attacked Environmentalists, Sauerbrey criticize protection measures

September 30, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Marcia Myers | Timothy B. Wheeler and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Douglas M. Birch contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's handling of the Pfiesteria problem came under fire from two fronts yesterday, with environmentalists and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ellen R. Sauerbrey slamming the administration for different reasons.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation denounced as a sham the governor's main effort to curb farm runoff that may have triggered toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida on the Lower Eastern Shore this summer.

Meanwhile, Sauerbrey took the issue for the first time into partisan politics. She accused the governor of unfairly blaming chicken farmers and called for the state to reopen the lower Pocomoke River for fishing.

The waterway, closed since Aug. 29, is one of three that the state has shut down because of fish kills or fish lesions that are believed to be caused by the microorganism.

The twin criticism was the first sign of erosion in public support for the governor's attempt to balance public concern over Pfiesteria with the potential economic impact of state actions on the fishing and poultry industries.

The bay foundation announced yesterday that it had withdrawn its support for a $2 million "cover crop" program Glendening unveiled this month. The Annapolis-based environmental group accused state agriculture officials of undermining the initiative with "midnight modifications" to make it more appealing to farmers.

"What the Maryland Department of Agriculture has done is make it a complete mess and create a lot of confusion," said Thomas Grasso, the foundation's Maryland director. He said the foundation would withhold $50,000 in privately raised money it had offered to support the program.

Scientists have linked outbreaks of Pfiesteria with too much nutrient flowing in rivers and streams. A chief suspect in the lower Pocomoke fish kills is runoff of nutrients from chicken manure, which is widely used as fertilizer on the Lower Shore.

The cover crop program would pay farmers to plant grains this winter and was intended to keep nutrients from seeping into the bay and its tributaries from over-fertilized farm fields. The wheat or other grains would take up the nitrogen left in the soil after the fall harvest. When fields are left fallow, excess nitrogen seeps into ground water.

Less than 20 percent of the nearly 100,000 acres to be planted in grain statewide under the program are on the Lower Shore. State officials said the $2 million also was intended as relief for drought-stricken farmers elsewhere.

But foundation officials say they are outraged by the state Agriculture Department's decision to let farmers spread nutrient-rich manure on the fields.

"The idea of the program was to take nutrients out of the ground, not spread nutrients on top of it," Grasso said. "What we've done is make it a program for subsidizing manure spreading, which is the antithesis of what we were trying to do."

Grasso called on the state to alter its contracts with farmers in the cover crop program to bar payments if they apply any commercial fertilizer or manure on their fields. Under one provision, farmers can spread manure once after March 1.

In a printed statement, the foundation also complained of "confusion" created by "midnight modification" of the cover crop program.

Lewis Riley, state agriculture secretary, last night expressed dismay. "I am not aware of any change made after the fact, and there were no 'midnight' negotiations. He said he believes there is a misunderstanding about the department's intention to limit chemical fertilizers but not animal manure.

"A cover crop program has always allowed for the application of animal waste as long as the farmer had a nutrient management program in place. There had to be a way to accommodate the farmer to use manure."

Ray Feldmann, a Glendening spokesman, said he was not familiar with details. But he defended the cover crop program as "one of a series of strategies we are putting in place in order to try to deal responsibly with the Pfiesteria outbreaks we have had throughout the summer."

W. Blan Harcum, president of the Wicomico County Farm Bureau, said that many poultry and livestock growers don't have the space to stockpile a winter's accumulation of manure. Farmers, he said, might refuse to participate in any cover crop program barring them from spreading their manure. "The cover crop will take up some of the manure that's going to be spread," he said.

Kenneth W. Staver, a University of Maryland researcher who has documented runoff from farm fields, said there would be less harm to water quality from applying manure to cover crops.

In Shelltown, Sauerbrey met with watermen, lower Shore local officials and seafood merchants outside Fred Maddox & Son Seafood as they made their case for reopening the lower Pocomoke.

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