Tax proposed to help fight bay pollution Environmental groups urge governor to back levy on chicken

'Manure disposal surcharge'

Idea is 'disastrous,' says lobbyist for poultry industry

December 18, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A coalition of 10 Maryland environmental organizations urged Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday to propose a tax of at least a penny a pound on chicken to pay for measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay from pollution.

The proposed tax, which the coalition described as a "manure disposal surcharge," was part of a 10-point plan prepared by the organizations to address the problem of toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks, which resulted in the closing of three waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay during the summer. Scientists have identified nutrient pollution from agriculture, especially the chicken industry in the case of the bay, as a likely factor in the fish-killing outbreaks.

Proponents described the proposed tax as a way of making the chicken industry pay its "fair share" of the costs of cleaning up pollution caused by manure runoff. A lobbyist for the Eastern Shore's poultry industry called the idea "disastrous."

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor would consider the tax proposal, along with other suggestions on how to tackle the Pfiesteria problem. He would not say how likely it is that the governor will incorporate the proposal in his legislative agenda for the 90-day General Assembly session that will begin Jan. 14.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a strong environmentalist, said he will consider introducing a bill to create the tax if the governor doesn't include it in his program.

The Prince George's County Democrat said the environmental groups had a valid reason for singling out the chicken industry. "We're not hearing about cow manure or horse manure," he said. "We're hearing about the high phosphorus level in chicken manure."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, said such a tax proposal would have virtually no chance of passing. The Baltimore Democrat said that with a $260 million state budget surplus projected, the state has enough money to tackle the problem without new taxes.

"I would rather hear from the environmental groups about nutrient loading and how to fix it, and leave the tax issues to people like me," said Hoffman.

Among the groups proposing the tax are the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation.

Their plan calls for a surcharge of at least a penny a pound for each chicken raised in Maryland. It would be imposed on the large poultry producers who own the birds and not on the growers who raise them under contract.

The tax would affect Maryland-grown chickens wherever they were sold, but not chickens raised elsewhere and sold in Maryland.

The coalition estimated that the tax would raise $13 million a year, which it would dedicate to a fund that would deal with the problem of excess manure on the Eastern Shore.

"It's more than reasonable to think a penny a pound is not just good for the bay but that it could easily be absorbed by the industry," said Tom Grasso, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Gerard Evans, an Annapolis lobbyist for the Delmarva poultry industry, said the tax "would be disastrous for Maryland's chicken industry."

"This is an industry that calculates its profits in fractions of a penny," he said. "When individual states start taxing an international commodity, which chicken is, then you've got a serious economic problem."

The chicken industry has been in the spotlight because of the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a one-celled organism that is thought to flourish in waters with high nutrient levels.

The outbreaks, which caused fish kills in the Pocomoke River during the summer, prompted Glendening to order the closing of that river and two other Eastern Shore waterways after a medical team connected exposure to Pfiesteria toxins with temporary memory loss in humans.

Most of the other proposals the coalition made yesterday closely parallel those of a task force appointed by the governor to develop a plan for dealing with the Pfiesteria outbreaks.

Those recommendations include requiring farmers to participate in nutrient-management plans, increased research into Pfiesteria and agricultural pollution control, and increased state funding for a cover crop program to help farmers control winter runoff. One of the group's proposals, a temporary moratorium on new chicken houses and other feedlot operations on the Eastern Shore, was rejected by the task force.

Evans said the industry also opposed that proposal. "In business, you either move forward or you perish," he said.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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