Panel rejects ban on new chicken houses Compromise plan appears to gain favor

October 28, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The gubernatorial commission looking into toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay watershed chose pragmatism over political confrontation yesterday as it backed away from imposing controls on the Eastern Shore's chicken industry.

In a sometimes rancorous session, the panel refused to recommend a moratorium on building any new chicken houses on the Shore and moved toward keeping farmers' participation in pollution-control plans voluntary.

On a 6-2 voice vote, the commission rejected the moratorium proposal, along with the arguments of Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, that too many chickens are producing too much manure for the soils of the Eastern Shore to absorb.

Meanwhile, a majority of the 11-member panel appeared to be coalescing around a compromise proposal by its chairman, former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. The plan would make farmers' participation in Maryland's nutrient management program mandatory only if the state fails to meet a goal for increasing the amount of acreage covered by voluntary plans.

Details of the Hughes plan have not been drafted, but its outlines appear to offer Gov. Parris N. Glendening political cover if he decides to sidestep a potentially divisive fight over environmental policy during an election year.

The commission, created by Glendening to consider strategies for fighting Pfiesteria, faces a deadline Saturday to submit recommendations so that legislation can be drafted for the General Assembly session that begins in January.

Tough curbs sought

Environmental groups had hoped fish-killing outbreaks of the Pfiesteria microbe this summer, along with medical findings tentatively linking its toxins with human health problems, would spur Maryland to adopt tough curbs on farm nutrient pollution. Scientists have told the commission that high nutrient levels in the water appear to foster the growth of Pfiesteria, and agriculture has been identified as the leading source of nutrient runoff on the Eastern Shore.

But yesterday's voting and debate showed that the commission is much more inclined to use the carrot than the stick in dealing with the state's powerful agriculture industry.

Despite considerable evidence that chicken manure is a major source of nutrient pollution on the Eastern Shore, Frosh's proposal to impose a moratorium on the construction of new chicken houses found little support. Of the eight members present, only Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker backed Frosh.

Another supporter, Dean Alfred Sommer of the Johns Hopkins TC School of Hygiene and Public Health, did not attend the meeting.

Frosh, the Maryland Senate's leading environmental advocate, argued that a moratorium on enclosed animal feedlot operations would be a "prudent step" in view of the bay's nutrient pollution problem.

"It's only good medicine to say we don't want the problem getting worse," Frosh said.

But commission member Frederick W. Nelson, president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau, said a moratorium would unfairly prevent farmers from expanding to meet the demands of the market.

"Let's make an amendment to tell all the poultry farmers to line up against a wall and shoot 'em," he suggested sarcastically.

'Rather drastic step'

Hughes said the commission had not heard the kind of overwhelming evidence a moratorium was needed to justify a "taking of property."

"I just think this is a rather drastic step to take," he added.

Frosh also met strong resistance to his argument that participation in nutrient management plans should be mandatory for farmers. He noted that in theory, such plans can save farmers money.

"There's no other industry that is loading nutrients into the bay that isn't regulated," Frosh said.

Predictably, Frosh's arguments were rejected by the three strongly pro-agriculture members of the commission. But neither did he make much headway with the moderate bloc, which includes Dr. John Toll, president of Washington College, and former state Sen. Bernie Fowler. Both expressed a preference for Hughes' middle-of-the-road approach.

After the meeting, the former governor said he believes there is a consensus to set a goal of enrolling about 1.2 million of the state's 1.7 million farm acres in nutrient management plans. The question, he said, is which year to set as the deadline.

Trigger provision

Hughes said the state has not been making fast enough progress under its voluntary nutrient management program, which now includes about 900,000 acres. He said he could support a trigger provision that makes the program mandatory if the acreage goal isn't met, but only if it is coupled with a commitment to devote adequate resources to carry out the program.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat and a defender of the state's agriculture industry, said he could support a trigger provision if the deadline is achievable and the proper level of state support is spelled out.

"The tone's right. The challenge is out there," said Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

With less enthusiasm, Frosh also said he would consider the trigger approach if the goals are strict enough.

But Del. James W. Hubbard, an environmentalist who is not a member of the Hughes commission, said he will press forward with legislation to make nutrient management plans mandatory regardless of what the panel recommends.

The Prince George's County Democrat said the poultry industry could end up regretting its resistance to mandatory controls if Pfiesteria reappears over the next two or three years, damaging the revenues of the seafood and tourism industries.

"Those industries will roll down the halls of Annapolis like an elephant stomping a chicken," he said.

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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