CHESTERTOWN -- The Eastern Shore's poultry industry sought yesterday to block any new state regulations, pledging to reduce the impact of chicken manure on the Chesapeake Bay while denying that manure has nourished a fish-killing microbe in bay waters.
"We don't think we're the culprit for Pfiesteria, at this point," said Keith E. Rinehart, vice president of technical services for Perdue Farms Inc. "But we realize we've got issues to address."
At the same time, scientists and others on Capitol Hill testified that ample evidence links nutrient pollution with Pfiesteria and other toxic algae troubling America's coastal waters.
"Pfiesteria is the symptom of a greater problem," Wayne McDevitt, North Carolina's secretary of the environment, told the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans. "Reduction of nutrients is critical if we want to restore our waters."
Appearing here at Washington College, officials with Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. warned the state's Pfiesteria task force that costly regulations could wreck the economy of the Eastern Shore. "Let us not devise a cure that is worse than our disease," said Kay Richardson, president of the group, which represents growers and poultry processors.
Spokesmen for the $1 billion-a-year industry pointed out that they have voluntarily reduced nutrients in chicken waste, and promised to continue.
Rinehart told the panel that the industry is moving to reduce nitrogen and phosphate in chicken manure by lowering the levels in feed.
Industry officials also described their efforts, in working with state officials, to encourage farmers to compost the 26 million birds that die each year in Delmarva chicken houses.
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told a reporter that the voluntary, chicken-composting effort was "a useful model to at least pursue" for curbs on manure.
Panel member Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said during a break in the meeting that the question for the task force is "How to reduce the impact on the bay and at the same time not destroy the chicken industry?"
He said he wasn't surprised by the industry's opposition to regulations.
"What industry wants to put on controls that hamper itself?" he asked.
It was the last public meeting of the task force, which will meet privately to draft recommendations for the governor, due Nov. 1.
Pfiesteria or related toxic microorganisms have been blamed for killing more than a billion fish in North Carolina in recent years and perhaps 50,000 fish in Maryland this summer.
Scientists have also found evidence that some people exposed to waterways where Pfiesteria is attacking fish have suffered short-term memory loss and other health problems.
Dr. Rita R. Colwell, president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, told the Maryland panel that the Pocomoke River should be tested for the presence of fecal coliform, a bacteria associated with human and animal waste.
Only if high levels of this bacteria are found in the water, she said, could a strong case be made that high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water are directly linked to chicken manure.
Other scientists, though, said after the meeting that nutrients might be migrating into bay waters without any telltale bacteria.
"Basically, you can see nutrients moving independently of fecal coliform," said Robert Summerof the Maryland Department of the Environment, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering. "Fecal coliform is a living organism which might die off. Phosphorus is a chemical which doesn't die off."
Colwell agreed with a key point of the poultry industry, saying that high nutrient levels have not been proven to stimulate Pfiesteria attacks. "It is premature to assign blame or leap to a conclusion that any one factor is contributing to this toxin production," she said.
Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, one of the scientists who discovered Pfiesteria, said yesterday that the link between Pfiesteria and nutrients has already been made, though the precise cause and effect is still unknown.
"Under the right conditions, Pfiesteria can be stimulated by nutrient overloading," Burkholder told the House panel in Washington.
Donald F. Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, agreed that nutrient pollution is "strongly implicated" in worsening harmful algae blooms around the world, but he cautioned that nitrogen and phosphorus have not been "unequivocally identified" as the cause.
"If we're trying to take major steps to control these, there's a burden of proof to develop," he said. But he said excess nutrients have been proven to cause other water-quality problems, and pollution reduction "might well pay off" in easing outbreaks of toxic microorganisms, too.
"The public is looking to us for answers," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Eastern Shore Republican who presided over much of the hearing. Noting that problems of nutrient pollution have been tied to large farm animal concentrations around the country, he predicted the federal government would impose national standards.
In the meantime, he said, he worries that regulations could harm his district's farmers.
John R. Griffin, Maryland's natural resources secretary, said government officials often have to act in the face of uncertainty. Speaking in Washington, he recalled how then-Gov. Harry Hughes had imposed a moratorium on catching rockfish despite complaints from watermen that there was no proof of overfishing. Subsequent research backed up Hughes.
"If we wait until all the science has been confirmed, we may have waited too long," Griffin said.
Pub Date: 10/10/97