Governor omits firms in Pfiesteria measure Environmentalists say cleanup cost shouldn't fall on chicken farms

January 27, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening disappointed environmentalists yesterday by sidestepping one of the most controversial issues in the debate over fighting Pfiesteria -- how to make large chicken companies pay their share of the costs of controlling farm pollution.

The final version of the governor's bill omits a provision that would have imposed the legal burden for disposal of nutrient-rich chicken manure on the giant "integrators." These companies include such well-known brands as Perdue and Tyson.

Environmentalists contend such a provision is necessary to ensure that the burden of pollution cleanup doesn't fall on the small contract growers who raise the birds. The measure that environmentalists want will be contained in a separate bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat.

The governor's bill, filed in the Senate last night with 19 co-sponsors, would eventually require farmers to abide by plans designed to control the flow of nutrients into Maryland waters. In many cases, those plans would rule out the application of chicken manure to fields -- potentially leaving poultry growers with an enormous disposal problem.

Joseph C. Bryce, the governor's legislative affairs director, would not rule out an eventual administration decision to support the Van Hollen approach, which is opposed by the chicken companies. Bryce said the governor wants to give the industry a chance to suggest ways it could participate in cleanup efforts.

The Glendening aide also noted that the idea was not addressed in the report of the commission the governor named to study the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria and related microbes in Chesapeake Bay tributaries last summer. The fish-killing episodes prompted the closing of three Eastern Shore waterways and cost the Maryland seafood industry at least $20 million -- possibly much more -- in sales.

Participants in the annual Maryland Environmental Summit in Annapolis yesterday expressed support for the governor's anti-Pfiesteria legislation but said they were disappointed by the decision on

manure disposal costs.

"Jim Perdue's company ranked No. 66" in the Fortune 500 list of the nation's top-earning companies, said Carole Morison, whose Bird's Eye View Farm a mile from the Pocomoke raises 584,000 chickens a year under contract to Perdue Farms. "I live in a home that is worth less than the shed I store manure in. I think the people who need to start kicking in and taking responsibility are the companies."

Calling the poultry industry "Big Chicken" and referring to chicken manure as "industrial waste," several environmentalists stressed that they don't want individual farmers stuck with any extra costs.

"The money is being made by Big Chicken, and so it's important that we work with the farmers to ensure that they can solve the problem without selling out their farms for townhouse development," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action.

But legislators from rural areas said that imposing heavy costs on Maryland producers could imperil their ability to compete in the world marketplace.

"By putting the requirement on the chicken producers, that may be the straw that breaks the camel's back and at least makes the industry look at Maryland as business-unfriendly," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat.

The bill the administration filed last night also answered the question of how large the fines would be for farmers who refused to file or abide by a plan to manage nutrient runoff, which scientists have tentatively linked with toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria. The administration's bill would make adoption of such plans mandatory by 2000 and would require farmers to abide by them by 2002.

Under the bill, farmers would be liable for administrative fines of up to $250 per violation, with an overall cap of $5,000, and a civil fine of $500.

The sanctions are lighter than Bryce had hinted last week when he unveiled the outline of the governor's Pfiesteria proposal. Bryce said the fines would be imposed only on the most recalcitrant farmers after multiple warnings.

"The goal is compliance; the goal isn't punishment," he said.

Bryce also fleshed out details of a tax credit designed to ease the financial burden on farmers who could no longer use free or inexpensive chicken manure on their land. The credit would let farmers recover 50 percent of the cost of replacement fertilizers for three years, up to a total of $4,500 a year.

Gerard E. Evans, lobbyist for the Delmarva poultry industry, said he was pleased the governor decided against the manure disposal provision. But Evans continued to question the scientific arguments for cracking down on nutrient pollution. "We're not talking about how much nuclear waste we're putting on the ground," he said.

While environmentalists and industrial representatives debated about Pfiesteria yesterday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was honoring the woman who co-discovered it in 1991.

As part of the environmental summit, the foundation presented its Conservationist of the Year award to Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, the North Carolina State University researcher who also identified it in the Pocomoke River last year.

It was the first time the conservation group has given the annual award to anyone who lives outside the Chesapeake Bay region.

In reply to questions from the audience, Burkholder said she agrees with Glendening that Pfiesteria will likely return this year. "Pfiesteria has outsmarted me a lot of times," she said. "I can only tell you that it's shown up every single year since we've first known about it in North Carolina."

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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