State to search for link between farms, microbe Inspectors to focus on Shore watersheds

October 23, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Seeking hard data on a possible link between agriculture and toxic outbreaks of the Pfiesteria microbe, the Board of Public Works approved a plan yesterday to conduct a comprehensive review of the environmental impact of poultry-growing operations and animal feedlots on the Eastern Shore.

Under the program, the state will spend $192,916 for three two-person teams that will collect information on how farmers manage the manure produced by chickens and other animals. The teams will concentrate their efforts on the watersheds of the three Chesapeake Bay tributaries where Pfiesteria outbreaks were identified this summer.

Scientists and environmentalists have identified runoff of agricultural nutrients -- particularly chicken manure -- as a probable contributor to the Pfiesteria problem. But recent hearings have shown that state officials have only sketchy data on the environmental impact of animal waste on the watershed.

The plan presented to the board yesterday would carry out a pledge by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to send teams into the field to collect data on Eastern Shore agriculture.

John Rhoderick, administrator of the Maryland Department of the Environment's resource conservation operation, said the positions would be used to create three inspection teams to examine Eastern Shore farms. The inspections are voluntary for the farmers.

He said the first priority would be to look at farms in the watershed of the Pocomoke River, site of the most serious Pfiesteria outbreaks. Next will be Kings Creek and the Chicamacomico River, two other waterways that were closed because of Pfiesteria.

Each team will be made up of an MDE sanitarian and a soil-conservation planner for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The cost includes the $32,066 salary of each sanitarian and the $23,211 to be paid to each soil-conservation worker.

Rhoderick said the positions will be permanent. "There's clearly a workload here that's long-term," he said, estimating that a complete survey of the Eastern Shore could take two to three years.

State officials hope that the presence of an Agriculture Department employee on the teams will overcome any reluctance on the part of farmers to have environmental inspectors on their land, Rhoderick said.

Any water-quality problems found will be referred to the local agricultural extension agent rather than to the MDE, he said, adding that temporary teams have received cooperation from more than 50 percent of farmers.

Among the data the teams will collect are the number of birds kept at poultry farms, the amount of manure generated, the amount of cropland that absorbs the waste, how much land is covered by formal nutrient-management plans and the potential for environmental damage from runoff.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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