State won't revise 'cover crop' program aimed at runoff Environmentalists oppose letting farmers use manure as fertilizer

October 01, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Douglas M. Birch | Timothy B. Wheeler and Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

Maryland agriculture officials said yesterday they will not revise a $2 million "cover crop" program designed to curb nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, despite environmentalists' complaints that letting farmers use animal manure as fertilizer will cause pollution.

"There's not going to be any change in the program," said Harold Kanarek, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture. A cover-crop subsidy was announced last month to combat nutrient pollution, which is suspected of triggering outbreaks of fish-killing Pfiesteria piscicida.

In Atlanta yesterday, public health officials from seven East Coast states asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to conduct a multistate study of the potential health effects of Pfiesteria and related organisms.

At the conclusion of a two-day workshop on the toxic microbe in Atlanta, the state officials agreed to increase their efforts to spot and track new Pfiesteria-related illnesses, said Dr. Michael McGeehin of the CDC's Center for Environmental Health.

State officials in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have found about 70 cases of possible poisoning by Pfiesteria-like organisms, he said.

They asked CDC experts to design a study that would pull together information being gathered separately by the states. That might include an extensive questionnaire for suspected cases, an environmental sampling program and a series of medical examinations and tests.

"If the resources are available, we would certainly be interested in doing it," McGeehin said.

Meanwhile, officials of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fix what they said was a program undermined by his own agriculture agency.

"The governor has shown leadership on Pfiesteria up until this point," Thomas Grasso, the foundation's Maryland director, said yesterday. "What concerns me is, there's one key agency out there that has expressly indicated by [its] action that [it's] less than interested in solving the problem, and that's unfortunate."

At the behest of environmentalists and agriculture officials, Glendening provided $2 million to curb nutrient runoff from farm fields and to help drought-stricken farmers. The bay foundation had offered to donate $50,000 to help underwrite cover crops but withdrew the support Monday.

Runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from farmers' fields is suspected of contributing to the conditions that are believed to have turned Pfiesteria from a docile algae-eater into a toxin-releasing fish killer in three bay tributaries.

The cover-crop program would help keep nitrogen in the fields by paying farmers up to $30 per acre to plant rye, wheat or other grains this fall. The crop would soak up nutrients left in the soil, preventing them from seeping into ground water or running off during storms. The grain would be plowed under to recycle the nutrients for spring planting.

In setting up the program, agriculture officials said it is especially critical to prevent nutrient runoff because this year's drought stunted the growth of crops and prevented them from absorbing the normal amount of nitrogen from the soil. The excess nutrients could wind up worsening the bay's nutrient pollution.

William Street, a bay foundation ecologist, said the environmental group had made clear in its negotiations with state agriculture officials that farmers getting paid to plant cover crops should not be allowed to apply either manure or commercial fertilizer.

"I don't think there was any way they could have misunderstood what we were saying," Street said yesterday. "We typed up a version of the agreement and gave it to them."

Agriculture officials first altered the terms of the program to specify that there be no commercial fertilizer applied, Street said, but later added a sentence saying that manure may be used as fertilizer. He found out about the changes only after farmers had begun to sign up.

Kanarek denied the foundation's allegations that "midnight modifications" had been made.

Farmers were allowed to fertilize with manure under an earlier cover-crop program that was eliminated by budget cuts two years ago, he said. He added that many farmers would not participate in the program unless they could spread manure because they have only enough storage for about six months at a time.

Kanarek said farmers will be allowed to spread manure only if soil tests indicate that nitrogen is needed for optimal growth of the cover crop.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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