Panel says Md., other states must do more to combat polluted runoff But Gilchrest says laws would hurt farmers

October 07, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maryland and other states must do more to curb the polluted farm runoff that may have helped trigger outbreaks of a toxic microorganism in Chesapeake Bay this summer, federal officials told a state commission yesterday.

But Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, warned members of the panel investigating Pfiesteria piscicida that the region's huge poultry industry would "crumble" if regulations are imposed on farmers' use of fertilizer.

"Any immediate mandatory regime would give us very little environmental benefits," Gilchrest said. "but would cause confusion [among farmers] and agriculture to crumble."

The 11-member panel, headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, was created by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to recommend measures to combat Pfiesteria and related organisms.

Outbreaks of the single-celled microbes, which are suspected of killing fish and injuring people working in infested waters, prompted the state to close parts of three bay tributaries. One was reopened last Friday.

Federal officials told the panel that the bay's Pfiesteria outbreaks are part of a growing number of red tides and other harmful algae "blooms" or growths afflicting America's coasts. Over-enrichment of coastal waters with nutrients from sewage, runoff and air pollution seem to be triggering or intensifying the episodes, which have caused fish kills, shut down resort areas and sickened people.

"Maryland is not alone," said Sally Yozell, deputy assistant Commerce secretary. "This is a national problem that deserves national attention and response."

On the lower Shore, where Pfiesteria-like outbreaks occurred this summer, runoff of fertilizer and manure from farm fields is the leading source of nutrients enriching rivers and streams.

Yozell said Maryland is "one of the leaders" among states trying to curb polluted runoff under a 1990 federal law. It requires coastal states to protect their waters.

Maryland is one of 10 states to receive conditional approval of its plan, which was submitted recently and cleared last week, she said. But the state has been unable to show how it will be able to get farmers, homeowners and marina operators to adopt its proposed measures. The rules would control pollution from croplands, septic systems and boats.

Federal regulators are giving Maryland one year either to demonstrate that its mostly voluntary farm runoff control efforts are working, or to develop more effective measures.

Manure from the 600 million chickens raised annually on the Delmarva Peninsula is widely applied to fields to fertilize crops there. Experts have told the panel that Maryland's current measures to limit soil erosion and application of fertilizer are ineffective.

Prompted by fish kills that led to the closure of the lower Pocomoke River this summer, the state Department of Agriculture launched a survey of how many farmers in that watershed are using recommended pollution control practices, such as storing their manure in sheds or following nutrient management plans prescribing how much fertilizer to apply. Preliminary results from that survey are due soon, Royden Powell, an assistant secretary, told the panel.

Robert Perciasepe, an assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said the agency is preparing to tighten federal regulation of farms raising animals, in recognition of how poultry, hog and cattle production has changed and concentrated in certain regions of the country over the past 20 years.

Federal limits on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be allowed in the nation's waters also are likely in the next couple of years, he said. However, the limits probably would be ** tailored to the specific conditions of different regions, lakes, and rivers.

"There's plenty of reasons to be going after nitrogen and phosphorus loads to Chesapeake Bay, beyond Pfiesteria," said Perciasepe, a former Maryland environment secretary. Even without toxic algae blooms, nutrient over-enrichment can lead to fish kills and losses of underwater grasses that are vital habitat for fish and shellfish.

Perciasepe noted that Maryland joined other bay states in 1987 in pledging to reduce nutrients in the Chesapeake by 40 percent by the year 2000. While that cleanup effort has helped put the state ahead of many others in combating nutrients, he said, the goal is not enforceable and may not be enough to restore individual bay tributaries.

But Gilchrest, who had been outspoken in highlighting the over-application of manure on Shore farm fields, yesterday took the position that hasty state regulation of chicken farmers could destroy the peninsula's $1.5 billion poultry industry.

Farmers routinely apply a greater amount of phosphorus than crops need, enabling it to run off into nearby streams. But Gilchrest warned that banning the practice would cost farmers and taxpayers untold millions of dollars.

"We have time to legitimately fix this runoff problem," he said, suggesting that government seek long-term solutions while encouraging farmers to plant "cover crops" and leave uncultivated buffers along streams to reduce runoff.

The congressman's advice rankled at least one member of the commission, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who has unsuccessfully sponsored bills in the past to regulate farmers' use of fertilizer. Frosh said he plans to introduce similar legislation next year.

"Whether or not chicken manure is a direct cause of Pfiesteria, it is a major problem for the Chesapeake Bay," Frosh said. "We need to get on top of it, and we're not right now."

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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