Voluntary curbs would aim at farms Panel leans toward requesting controls on agricultural runoff

Shore is first target

Limits could become mandatory if goals weren't met

October 30, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The gubernatorial commission on Pfiesteria edged closer yesterday to recommending that Maryland farmers voluntarily TC limit agricultural pollution or risk having controls imposed by the state.

The panel tentatively agreed that the state should set staggered goals for adoption of nutrient-management plans that control runoff from fields.

Farmers on the lower Eastern Shore, where Pfiesteria outbreaks occurred this summer, would be expected to adopt the plans by 2000, farmers elsewhere in the state by 2002.

Under the draft recommendations, farmers would be expected to have their farms operating according to the plans within two years of adopting them.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, the commission's chairman, said he was confident that the recommendations were a consensus of the 11-member panel. But a key member said that if there is a consensus on mandatory compliance, he isn't a part of it.

"I don't buy it. I don't think it's a realistic goal," said Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat who is chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "I think it's doomed to fail in that time frame."

The commission postponed action yesterday after Guns said he wanted to see the final language before voting. The panel, which plans to deliver its report to Gov. Parris N. Glendening Monday, is expected to vote by conference call.

Hughes said he expects the final report to be supported by all but two or three members.

The question of whether plans to limit the flow of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay should be voluntary or mandatory for farmers is the most contentious issue the Pfiesteria commission has confronted.

Nutrient runoff from agriculture has long been acknowledged as a problem for the bay, but the issue became urgent after outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like organisms prompted the closing of three bay tributaries in the summer.

Scientists have told the commission strong evidence exists that nutrient pollution contributes to the proliferation of Pfiesteria piscicida.

It is not clear whether the final report will state that controls should become mandatory for farmers who miss the deadline. But Sen. Brian E. Frosh said the commission knows it is unrealistic to expect every farmer in the state to act voluntarily.

"Ultimately, they don't have a choice. They've got to have a nutrient-management plan," said Frosh. But the Montgomery County Democrat conceded that the commission's consensus "may be in the eye of the beholder" on mandatory participation by farmers.

"In part, what we're saying to the legislature is, you figure out how to get to 100 percent participation," he said.

Although the goals the commission is close to recommending appear to be ambitious, the panel apparently will swaddle them in caveats.

The draft will make the goals contingent on the state's providing adequate support for the programs and on the development of new ways to dispose of manure that is now spread on the soil. It also will seek to ensure that farmers are not required to take steps that will hurt them economically.

The strategy of adopting deadlines in 2000 and 2002 for nutrient-management plans was suggested by Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Sommer said the state's "overriding goal" should be to stop putting more phosphorus on the land than the soil can absorb. The panel has heard extensive testimony that farmland on the Eastern Shore is saturated with phosphorus, a major component of chicken manure.

The commission's focus on chickens is causing considerable unease in the state's poultry industry, which offered yesterday $1 million over four years for pilot programs on waste reduction.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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