Members of governor's Pfiesteria panel pin hopes on limiting nutrient pollutants They wrestle with idea of new poultry industry rules

October 22, 1997|By Michael Dresser and Douglas M. Birch | Michael Dresser and Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

A gubernatorial panel agreed last night that the state's best hope of heading off future blooms of Pfiesteria piscicida is to limit the flow of nutrient pollutants into Chesapeake Bay estuaries.

But the Governor's Pfiesteria Action Commission, which met in Annapolis, has just begun to grapple with the tougher question: whether to impose new regulations on a leading source of nutrients, Maryland's huge poultry industry.

Commission members are far from a consensus on who should pay the cost of more prudent disposal of the Lower Eastern Shore's chicken manure.

All seemed to assume that the state would pick up at least part of that cost. William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, argued that poultry processors must also be asked to help underwrite any solutions.

"We ask every industry in Maryland to go a bit further to protect the bay," he said. "I don't see why the chicken industry should be any different."

But Richard Nelson, head of the Somerset County Farm Bureau and a poultry farmer, warned that the chicken processing giants will pull their operations out of Maryland "overnight" if they are faced with any increase in costs.

"The only person who's going to get hurt on this in the long run is the farmer," he said.

The panel also agreed that too much phosphorus is being applied to farms on the Lower Shore, where Pfiesteria has attacked tens of thousands of fish in recent months and might have temporarily sickened 30 people. Phosphorus in particular is suspected of nurturing the microbe.

Still, some members warned, if the state acts too aggressively, it could make the problem worse.

"I would not want to see a bill passed saying that a farmer can't use manure because he has a soil sample high in phosphorus," said Del. Ronald A. Guns, a commission member and chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. If so, he warned, "You're going to have somebody out there dumping it in the creek at midnight."

Earlier yesterday, members of the House panel trooped through chicken manure sheds, inspected a sewage treatment plant and got a lesson on performing a post-mortem on a fish.

But while their bus made stops at Pocomoke City, Rehobeth, Princess Anne and Shelltown, it didn't bring them anywhere close to consensus. Members met with farmers, watermen and scientists during their all-day field trip to study the Pfiesteria problem -- an issue they will face in the next General Assembly session.

Between stops, they received an exhaustive series of on-board briefings from state officials about the evidence linking Pfiesteria with nutrient pollution.

Afterward, members remained sharply divided on the key question of whether tougher measures need to be taken to control runoff.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, said what he saw and heard had reinforced his intention to introduce legislation imposing mandatory controls on farm animal waste. He said his main target would be large chicken processing companies that provide nutrient-rich feed rather than the farmers who follow their instructions in raising the birds.

Hubbard said he was especially dismayed at a Maryland Department of Agriculture survey that found that the abundant chicken manure in the Pocomoke River watershed was being spread over just 42 percent of the area's cropland, much of which was also treated with commercial fertilizer.

"They're taking it out in the fields and spreading it in the fields only so they can make room so they can fill it up again," said Hubbard.

But Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, said he remains skeptical about the recently announced scientific consensus that reducing nutrient pollution could lessen the chances of Pfiesteria outbreaks in the long run.

"I don't know if it's the magic bullet -- that if we reduce it, Pfiesteria will go away," said Guns, who represents a heavily agricultural district. "It's that demand for a quick solution that in this case I don't know that we're going to find."

Del. Paul S. Stull, a Frederick County Republican, said he was troubled that scientists could not pinpoint how much nutrient reduction would be needed to have an impact on Pfiesteria.

"Nobody has given me any really definitive answers," he said, adding that it might be premature for the General Assembly to pass sweeping legislation.

Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat, predicted that any effort to put tight controls on agriculture would face an uphill battle in the House committee. But he said Gov. Parris N. Glendening should not be deterred.

"The governor should grasp the moment. He has a chance to provide some permanent protection for the bay," said Billings. "It will take a tough Senate and a strong governor to do anything."

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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