Pfiesteria panel gives green light for runoff controls Commission's report sets tone for debate at January session


November 04, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It was the last day of deliberations for the governor's Pfiesteria commission, and Del. Ronald A. Guns and Sen. Brian E. Frosh were wrangling as usual -- this time over whether, and how soon, to impose pollution controls on Maryland farmers.

Frosh, with the skills of an able lawyer, argued passionately on behalf of decisive action to protect the Chesapeake Bay; Guns, with his keen sense of pocketbook issues, stood firm on behalf of chicken growers and other farmers. Then, with exquisite comic timing, Guns flashed a grin at the audience.

"This is just a preview," he cracked, and immediately returned to the fray.

Guns was alluding to the General Assembly session that convenes Jan. 14. The challenge facing Gov. Parris N. Glendening as he reads through the 38-page report is how to turn the contents from advice to law.

The panel's report, approved on a 6-2 vote with Guns in the minority, was delivered to Glendening yesterday by its chairman, former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

While the hurriedly prepared report is short on specifics, it does give Glendening political cover to draft legislation that includes controls on nutrients in farm runoff, which are suspected of contributing to the toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in Maryland waters this summer.

The panel recommended that all farmers adopt nutrient management plans by 2000 and put them "fully and demonstrably" into effect by 2002. Nowhere in its report did the commission say the plans should be mandatory, but the panel left the implication that if farmers don't act voluntarily, they should be required to do so.

In a statement yesterday, the governor declined to comment on the report, saying he intends to take several weeks to review it.

But he has previously signaled that he would be willing to push mandatory limits if the commission recommended them. Environmental groups -- allies Glendening can ill afford to offend in an election year -- clearly expect him to take a strong stand.

But proposing such legislation is easy; getting General Assembly approval could be difficult.

The farm measures could be particularly tough to sell in the House, where Guns will be fighting on his turf. There, he will not be one member of an 11-member advisory commission but the powerful chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

In that role, the Cecil County Democrat is ideally situated to define the limits of the state's response to Pfiesteria. His allies would likely include Republicans, rural Democrats, farmers and the state's huge chicken industry.

The governor's prospects for winning approval of mandatory pollution controls on agriculture stand a much better chance in the Senate. The prospects of a strong Senate bill are enhanced by the presence of Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who has won bipartisan respect as the chamber's leading expert on environmental issues.

This year Frosh was the Senate's point man on its most important environmental achievement -- passage of the governor's Smart Growth bill to combat suburban sprawl.

Frosh said he is optimistic that the legislature will be swayed by public sentiment that the state must take strong action to control Pfiesteria, which in its toxic form has been connected with fish kills and human health problems. But he acknowledged that he is concerned about Guns' committee.

"That's most likely to be the roadblock, and if that weren't the roadblock, we'd have even stronger recommendations from the commission," said Frosh.

Guns can usually count on 12 or 13 votes on his 22-member committee, but a strong-willed committee chairman can prevail even without a majority.

"He doesn't even have to bring it up for a vote. A chairman can always stick it in his drawer," said Frosh.

But Guns' track record on the commission suggests that he won't be trying to kill anti-Pfiesteria legislation but to shape it to his views. After Friday's meeting, he said he could have supported the panel's report if not for the one sentence setting explicit goals for full participation in nutrient management plans.

Despite his fiscal conservatism, Guns emerged during the deliberations as a strong advocate of increased state spending on programs to help farmers control the flow of nutrients into the bay. Many of his suggestions found their way into the final report.

In the end, Guns based his decision to dissent less on the principle of mandatory controls than on the timing of their introduction.

The 49-year-old delegate said there was a "slim thread of consensus" that farmers should be in nutrient management plans but that expecting them to implement them by 2002 was unrealistic.

He offered an amendment to extend the target date for full compliance to 2010. It failed by a 6-2 vote.

It is unclear whether Guns' willingness to specify a date -- even one 12 years away -- is a basis for compromise.

But certainly it would be no surprise if the 1998 session ends in much the same way the 1997 session did: with Frosh and Guns working late into the night trying to hammer out a deal.

"The odds are we'll be seeing a lot of each other," said Frosh.

Highlights of panel's report

The following suggestions are intended to limit the nutrient pollution suspected in outbreaks of toxic micro-organisms:

* All farmers should enroll in state-approved nutrient management plans by 2000 and implement them by 2002 ` contingent on adequate state support.

* Plans should manage phosphorus as well as nitrogren.

* The state and the chicken industry should develop a feed additive to reduce phosphorus-saturated fields.

* Ways should be found to dispose of manure without spreading it on phosphorus-saturated fields.

* The state should get manufacturers, retailers and homeowners to better manage fertilizer for lawn care.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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