State defends cuts in runoff But Shore farmers seem skeptical of Pfiesteria threat

January 06, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- In front of a packed house of skeptics, top state officials last night defended the need to cut farm runoff on the Lower Eastern Shore to protect Chesapeake Bay rivers and streams from more toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida.

The state's plans have not been announced, but a commission appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening has recommended that every farm in the state take steps to reduce its runoff of pollution from fertilizer and animal waste by 2002.

The commission found that high levels of farm runoff contributed to last summer's lethal outbreaks of microorganisms in the Pocomoke River and other Eastern Shore waterways, although the exact causes of the outbreaks are unclear.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin praised Eastern Shore farmers for working hard for more than a decade to reduce the flow of farm runoff into the bay. But Griffin said runoff from farms in Worcester, Somerset and Wicomico counties remains high.

More than three-quarters of all Pocomoke-area farmers take steps to control water pollution from their land -- but four-fifths of them use nutrient-laden chicken manure as fertilizer, according to a Maryland Department of Agriculture survey.

"Even if we didn't have this issue, it's pretty clear that we need to do more," Griffin said. "This is more than just an agricultural problem. The impact that we've witnessed together over the last several months cuts across this community, affecting farmers, watermen and people in the tourism business."

Griffin told an audience of about 600 at the Wicomico County Civic and Youth Center in Salisbury that the summer and fall Pfiesteria outbreaks have driven a wedge between watermen whose health and livelihood were threatened by the outbreaks, and farmers who fear they will bear the costs of the measures necessary to end them.

"I've witnessed over the last several months the fabric of this community down here being torn apart as one faction tried to put the blame on another faction," Griffin said. "I hope that it is ending."

But the first few audience members to speak at last night's public hearing, called by members of the Eastern Shore delegation to the General Assembly, appeared to be in no rush to accept new state regulations.

They said scientific evidence linking high nutrient levels to Pfiesteria is weak, and they worried that some proposals, such as a tax on Maryland poultry, would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Some seemed unconvinced that the Pfiesteria crisis exists.

Russell Cooper, a fourth-generation waterman from Salisbury, said that as a small child in the 1930s he remembers seeing fish with red sores much like the lesions attributed to Pfiesteria. Cooper said he and his family members saved those fish for their dinner table rather than sell them.

"It probably killed my grandfather, but he lived to be 90 years old," said Cooper to loud laughter from the audience. "If you don't have a problem, I'm sure you people have got to create one to justify your existence with two assistants and an expense account, but this problem, if it is a problem, has been around since the '30s."

Last night's meeting was intended to "send a message across the water to Annapolis that Eastern Shore constituents won't be stampeded into supporting new laws aimed at getting Pfiesteria under control," said Democratic Wicomico Del. Norman H. Conway.

The meeting was "the first shot in a hopefully short war," said Wicomico County Councilman Louis R. Molnar, a farmer and one of the session's organizers. "We as farmers have been put on the defensive with this overblown crisis. However, I think tonight we have gone on the offensive."

Aides to the governor said yesterday he will unveil a package of Pfiesteria control measures in his State of the State address Jan. 21, but those measures have not been drafted.

Republican state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who represents Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties, said the shore delegation will strongly resist many of the preliminary ideas for controlling Pfiesteria that have been floated by environmentalists.

"If we put a 1-cent tax on our poultry or a moratorium on new chicken houses, or mandatory nutrient management plans that prevent us from putting poultry litter on 80 percent of our land, we're in trouble, folks. We're down the tubes," Stoltzfus said. "We're going to be growing houses instead of corn."

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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