Pfiesteria puts Gilchrest to test on environment Congressman says he wants clearer link to farmland pollution

October 11, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In his six years in office, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has earned a reputation -- in Congress and in his district on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- as a maverick Republican willing to buck his party to fight for environmental causes.

With a small band of like-minded Republicans, Gilchrest has fought to save the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act from GOP efforts to gut them.

Now, however, Gilchrest finds himself in the unusual role of trying to fend off new measures intended to protect the environment. A rash of fish kills and ailments among watermen has led critics to push for stricter state regulation of chicken manure, which is believed to unleash the toxins of Pfiesteria piscicida and other microbes. Gilchrest, whose district includes many poultry farmers, faces perhaps his sternest test yet of how far he is willing to go for the conservation cause.

"Where the rubber really hits the road is where you know what's right, and your constituents don't want to do it," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who follows environmental issues closely. "I'm not suggesting that he's bending what he thinks is right -- but it's a test."

Frosh and other environmental activists are quick to say they have not written off Gilchrest and that he continues, for now, to retain credibility as someone who cares about the environment. But they say they are surprised to see him talking at public forums in terms that echo the statements of the poultry industry.

"I've been puzzling about the Wayne situation," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, a frequent Gilchrest ally who is Chesapeake program director for Clean Water Action, a national environmental group.

"This is strange."

For his part, Gilchrest asserts that there is no single proper position for a true environmentalist. In an interview this week, he said scientists still need to pin down more evidence to determine exactly why the fish kill and illnesses have occurred.

The role of phosphorus in the outbreak, for example, has not been sufficiently studied, Gilchrest said. In the meantime, he contended, it would be premature for Maryland officials to impose new regulations on farmers.

Until links between farmland pollution and the ailments are clearer, Gilchrest said, farmers should be asked to take effective voluntary steps to limit pollution. He suggested tilling their fields every two or three years to churn nutrients such as phosphorus deeper into the soil, where they would be less likely to run off into the water.

While no laws have been proposed, Gilchrest has presided over hearings of a congressional subcommittee on the Pfiesteria issue and has testified against new regulations before a state task force.

A number of state officials, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, have suggested that it might be time to regulate an industry that has typically relied on voluntary compliance.

One such step might be to require a reduction in how much chicken manure could be used for farmland fertilizer.

But Gilchrest argues that such a move could endanger the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore. If there are to be more regulations, they should be set nationally, not at the state level, he said, so that Maryland companies would not be put at a disadvantage because of higher costs.

State figures show that Maryland commercial processors used 300 million chickens to produce 1.36 billion pounds of meat in 1995.

"If you created those mandates today, you would shut down every farm, virtually, in the state of Maryland," Gilchrest said. "If that was mandatory as of now, or even January, we wouldn't have any place to put the manure that you couldn't put on the field.

"Where will it go? The economics aren't there to ship it," he said. "There's no market for it. Agriculture as we know it in Maryland, or in the United States, would cease, just like that."

Gilchrest, an unassuming man who came to his environmental stance by way of a love for the outdoors, appears to maintain an earnest belief in the willingness of people to take responsibility for their actions when they are presented with facts.

Over the past 20 years, he said, farmers have eagerly sought to follow suggested procedures to limit pollution.

Several colleagues said Gilchrest's response shows a pragmatist's effort to balance competing concerns.

"It's like a lot of things you have to do as a congressman," said Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who, like Gilchrest, is from the environmental wing of the party. "There's DTC never a clear and easy answer, but there are a lot of people who are affected adversely with any decision we make."

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