Steps to alleviate runoff outlined at Shore forum Pfiesteria experts speak as governor readies plan

January 18, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

CHESTERTOWN -- While aides to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening worked through the weekend to come up with a plan for preventing new toxic algae outbreaks in state waters, some top experts on Pfiesteria spelled out the elements such a plan must have.

Among the dozens of suggestions to surface since summer's outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like microorganisms in the Pocomoke River and other waterways, former Gov. Harry Hughes and others said these are the most essential:

Regulations on the amount of fertilizer that commercial lawn services and landscapers can use on urban and suburban land.

Farm-by-farm plans for stopping the flow of pollutants from fertilizer and animal manure, with deadlines at most five years away.

State money to help cover extra costs that farmers would bear.

Extra workers in the Maryland Department of Agriculture to advise farmers and make sure the plans are carried out.

Hughes, chairman of a citizens' commission appointed by Glendening to recommend solutions to the Pfiesteria problem, said Maryland needs aggressive legislation "to keep the pressure on and get the job done."

And because most of the burden will fall on farmers, Glendening needs to send a strong signal that the state will back them up with technical support and financial help, Hughes and several other speakers said yesterday at a forum on Pfiesteria. About 120 people, including farmers, watermen and environmentalists, attended the session at Washington College.

Glendening is to unveil legislation aimed at getting Pfiesteria under control in his State of the State address Wednesday. Chief legislative aide Joseph Bryce said staffers were working through the weekend to complete it.

The governor has a reputation for keeping his own counsel. Environmentalists, legislators and others who met with him last week said he gave few specifics about his plans.

"If you didn't know the way Glendening talks and acts, you could have come away thinking that he made specific commitments, but he didn't," said environmentalist Dru Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action after meeting with him Wednesday.

Hughes said he talked with Glendening about the issue briefly at a meeting of the state Board of Regents. "He just said, 'Generally, we're going to do what the commission recommends,' " Hughes said.

The citizens' commission said in November that new anti-pollution measures are needed because it is highly likely that the toxic outbreaks are linked to polluted runoff from farms and large poultry operations.

For about 20 years, area farmers have been getting rid of chicken manure by spreading it on the land as fertilizer. Now there's far more nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil than the crops need.

Agricultural experts used to think the nutrients could be kept harmlessly in the soil with existing farming methods. But they're learning that in the case of phosphorus, that isn't true, said Thomas Fretz, dean of the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture. Scientists have found that, at very high levels, phosphorus can be dislodged into streams and rivers.

The nitrogen and phosphorus in farm runoff trigger algae blooms that provide food for Pfiesteria and other potentially toxic micro-organisms. And under some conditions, some forms of phosphorus can directly trigger the growth of Pfiesteria's toxic phase, aquatic scientist Patricia Glibert said.

To slow the flow of nutrients into the bay and coastal waters, some farmers might have to stop using manure on their fields, replacing it with commercial fertilizers. That would cost a typical corn grower about $25 to $40 per acre, said Thomas Simpson of the state Department of Agriculture.

Farmers should also build sheds to keep the manure out of the rain, Simpson said. The state already helps pay for the sheds, which cost $12,000 to $18,000.

Companies that process chicken feed should begin adding the enzyme phytase, which helps chicken digest phosphorus and reduces the amount of the nutrient in manure by about 20 percent, Simpson said. But it costs money to retool the feed plants, and the enzyme adds to the cost of feed.

If Maryland's steps to fight Pfiesteria are based on science and co-operation, said panelist and farmer Brennan Starkey, "farmers will support them."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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