Governor unveils Pfiesteria plan $41.5 million effort starts political battle

January 22, 1998|By Heather Dewar and Michael Dresser | Heather Dewar and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced a $41.5 million statewide plan to control Pfiesteria yesterday, touching off a political battle that pits agriculture against the environment.

"The state is not blaming farmers for the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria," Glendening said, unveiling his legislative proposal in his State of the State address yesterday. The plan includes measures that affect landscaping companies, sewage plants, septic tanks and other nonfarm issues.

But the element Glendening described as "most important" is the state's first effort to impose mandatory, farm-by-farm limits on Maryland farmers' use of fertilizer. The guidelines will impose strong curbs on the practice of spreading chicken manure on fields, especially on the Lower Eastern Shore.

The proposed limits on agriculture are an effort to reduce nutrient runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and coastal bays near Ocean City. A citizens' panel concluded it was highly likely that excess nutrients encouraged last summer's outbreaks of toxic microorganisms in the Pocomoke River and other waterways.

The governor offered farmers a menu of sweeteners to help ease their transition to a more regulated way of life. They included $1.1 million a year to help them devise plans for reducing runoff, and another $1 million a year in tax credits to individual farmers. But aides to Glendening said the measures probably will not cover all the farmers' costs

Those extra costs -- as well as the possibility of fines against farmers who don't abide by the regulations -- were described as "flash points" by rural legislators.

"He sent a very clear message to the agricultural community that don't care about you.' I think he swallowed the extremist environmentalist agenda hook, line and sinker," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Joseph C. Bryce, Glendening's chief legislative aide, said the governor is working on ways to pass along the unmet costs to the big poultry companies whose 300 million chickens are considered a major source of nutrient-laden runoff on the Eastern Shore.

Also left unresolved was the question of the penalties to be imposed on farmers who do not comply with nutrient management rules, which would require them to have plans for controlling nutrients drawn up by 2000 and in effect by 2002.

About 60 percent of Maryland farmers have voluntary plans to control nitrogen, but they would have to start limiting phosphorus as well. Both of the nutrients can encourage toxic microorganisms, scientists say.

Bryce said the plan will not impose criminal penalties but would likely include fines similar to those under a law prohibiting the improper application of pesticides to farmland. That statute provides for $1,000 fines.

Environmentalists in the legislature smiled on the Glendening plan yesterday despite its gaps, while farmers' representatives said the burden was being placed on them too quickly, and with too little financial help.

"It's an aggressive response to the problem. It's appropriate. I think it's balanced," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's going to make sure the burden on individual farms doesn't fall heavily but at the same time the bay gets cleaned up."

"No one's being left out and no one's being unfairly stuck with the burden," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action. "It's going to be tough to get through the legislature. We'll be outgunned here by the poultry industry 10 to 1."

Glendening's plan hews closely to recommendations made in November by a citizens' task force chaired by former Maryland ** Gov. Harry R. Hughes. The panel heard extensive testimony from farmers, scientists and watermen.

Farmers can live with most elements, but not with the plan's speedy deadlines or the threat of penalties, said Stephen Weber of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

"We have no problems with the innovations -- that's good stuff," Weber said. "But we have not been included in the formulation of this plan, and we are the ones who have to risk fines and deadlines. It hasn't been a fair process."

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Senate's only full-time farmer, said he found the talk about fines and deadlines alarming.

The Charles County Democrat, who called the proposed deadlines "too aggressive," said he plans to introduce his bill in an effort to find a middle ground between the governor's program and those who want to kill it outright.

Glendening said he expected his package to pass despite its many controversial elements, adding that delegates who voted against his package were risking voters' wrath in the fall.

"If they turn us down for whatever reason, what's going to happen when Pfiesteria returns?" he said in an interview. "What if it spreads across the state? The public would be outraged, and would turn to all of us and say, 'You've had your chance, and what have you done?' "

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