Runoff curb by 2002 sought Governor's study on controlling Pfiesteria sets goals for farmers

Plan isn't mandatory, but compliance is expected

November 01, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The governor's commission on Pfiesteria approved ambitious goals for controlling farm pollution as it declared yesterday that every Maryland farmer should carry out a plan to control runoff by 2002.

The action on the single most controversial matter before the panel was seen as a preliminary victory for environmentalists and a setback for farmers -- particularly the Eastern Shore's mammoth chicken industry.

The recommendation passed by a 6-2 vote, the same margin by which the commission approved its final report and sent it to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The panel, chaired by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, said each farmer in Maryland should have a nutrient management plan in place by 2000 and have it "fully and demonstrably implemented" two years later.

Nowhere in the language is the term "mandatory," but members agreed the panel's implicit message to farmers was: Get with the plan. Farmers, said Hughes, have "no reason to drag their feet."

But members also emphasized that the state must give farmers the tools to do the job and to insulate them from economic harm. An amendment to the draft made the target dates contingent on the state providing sufficient resources to meet the goals.

Glendening named the Blue-Ribbon Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission Sept. 15 to chart a course of action for Maryland to deal with outbreaks of toxic microbes in its waters.

The outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida and related organisms, which have been linked to human ailments, prompted the closing of three Eastern Shore waterways this summer. The last one, the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County, reopened yesterday.

The report is expected to form the basis for the administration's legislative package dealing with the Pfiesteria issue. Some parts can be accomplished by executive action, but the most controversial proposals would require the approval of the General Assembly -- where heavy opposition is likely.

The commission devoted much of its report to recommendations on how to control the runoff into the bay of nutrients, especially the phosphorus found in chicken manure produced by the state's giant chicken industry.

Panel members focused on agriculture after scientists told them evidence suggests that nutrient pollution can help foster the conditions that make Pfiesteria turn toxic in the presence of fish.

Most of the 38-page report generated little disagreement. A broad series of recommendations for research andgovernment spending on developing new anti-pollution technologies were adopted unanimously.

But the one sentence setting the target date was enough to persuade Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, and Rick Nelson, president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau and a chicken grower, to oppose the entire report.

Neither disputed the need to bring farmers under nutrient

management plans, but both contended that the target dates were unreasonable.

"It needs more time. There's a lot of promises out there we're not in control of delivering," said Guns, a Cecil County Democrat whose proposal to extend the implementation deadline to 2010 lost on a 6-2 vote.

Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said the commission "will be laughed off the face of the earth" if it suggested delaying action until then.

The panel discarded an earlier suggestion by Sommer of staggered goals that would have all lower Eastern Shore farms adopt plans by 2000 and the rest of the state two years later. But the final draft says that if resources run short, the state should focus its early efforts of its "most severely nutrient-impaired" watersheds -- many of which are in the three Lower Shore counties.

Three members of the 11-member commission were absent at the final meeting.

Opponents interpreted the language on goals as a call for a mandate, with Guns predicting it would turn up in legislation as a "drop-dead date" for farmers.

Figures supplied by the Maryland Department of Agriculture indicated that about three-quarters of the farmers in the Pfiesteria-affected parts of the state have agreed to voluntary nutrient management plans, but a department survey raised doubts about how many plans are fully implemented.

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, there are now between 900,000 and 1 million acres in nutrient plans.

Democratic Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County said that means the voluntary program put in place in 1989 has failed to meet its goal of covering 1.3 million of the state's 1.7 million acres of farmland by now.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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