Microbe panel in partial accord Agreement easiest on issues related to Pfiesteria, farming

Confrontation seen Monday

Possible moratorium on chicken industry expansion on agenda

October 24, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The gubernatorial commission on the Pfiesteria problem reached a consensus yesterday on most of the easy issues affecting agriculture, setting the stage for a confrontation Monday over two controversial proposals backed by environmentalists.

Nine members of the commission, formed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, agreed in principle to encourage increased research on the many unanswered questions about how the fish-killing microbe is affected by agricultural nutrient runoff and what can be done about it.

The panel, with nine of its 11 members attending, also agreed on a need to expand a program that pays farmers to plant "cover crops" that help absorb nutrients from the soil.

Royden Powell, assistant state agriculture secretary for resource conservation, told members that Glendening's recently instituted $2 million cover crop program helped plant 110,000 acres with winter crops, but that applications from farmers for another $1.4 million were were not approved because the money ran out.

After a brief skirmish, the commission delayed action on recommending a moratorium on expansions of the Eastern Shore chicken industry and other animal-raising operations. Animal waste, particularly chicken manure, has been identified by scientists as a leading source of nutrient runoff into Chesapeake Bay tributaries on the Eastern Shore.

Nutrient-induced algae growth has been identified by researchers as a factor in stimulating the growth of Pfiesteria, which can turn toxic in the presence of fish. Three lower Shore waterways were closed this summer -- one of them remains shut -- after toxic outbreaks that were tentatively linked to illness in humans as well as fish.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and commission member, said he also plans to raise at Monday's meeting a controversial proposal to require farmers to adopt nutrient management plans. That proposal -- expected to become one of the most hotly debated issues before the General Assembly this winter -- faces opposition from rural commission members who want to keep the program voluntary.

The panel agreed this week on an important change that stirred little controversy: a shift in the state's nutrient management planning from a system aimed at controlling nitrogen in the soil to one that takes into account a widespread overabundance of phosphorus.

The panel has heard from numerous scientists that soil in most of the Eastern Shore is saturated with phosphorus, an element found in chicken manure.

Many of the recommendations approved yesterday deal with strategies for getting phosphorus out of the manure, keeping manure off phosphorus-laden soil and keeping the phosphorus already there out of the water.

The murky state of scientific knowledge was underscored as almost a dozen of the panel's recommendations amounted to little more than calls for additional or expedited research.

The only fireworks in the session came when Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, raised the issue of a moratorium to control the growth of the Shore's chicken industry.

"Our problem is that the bay is going to hell in a handbasket, because at present we have more manure than we know what to do with," he said.

But Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat who represents the House of Delegates on the panel, said it is irrational to make the chicken industry "the bad guy."

He warned that such a move would send a signal to the chicken industry executives that they should make long-range plans to move somewhere other than Maryland.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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