Pfiesteria study in N.C. backs Md. report Panel says cutting flow of nutrients will lower danger of outbreaks

January 31, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A panel of scientists enlisted by North Carolina's governor to review Pfiesteria research has endorsed the findings the Glendening administration used as the basis for its controversial water-quality legislation.

The panel concluded that reducing the flow of nutrients into the water is likely to reduce the risk of outbreaks of toxic microbes like the ones that prompted the closing of three Eastern Shore waterways last summer.

The recently released report largely echoes the "Cambridge Consensus," a document produced by the scientific advisers to the Maryland task force that met last fall to develop recommendations for Gov. Parris N. Glendening on how to respond to Pfiesteria.

Dubbed the "Raleigh Report," the North Carolina study is the product of a gathering of 14 aquatic ecologists, chemists, biologists and other scientists in December at the University of North Carolina's Water Resources Research Institute.Most were U.S. and Canadian experts who previously had not been involved in academic disputes surrounding Pfiesteria and related microbes.

The report provides ammunition for environmentalists supporting passage of Glendening's water-quality initiative, which has aroused opposition because of a proposed crackdown on nutrient pollution from Maryland farms.

"There can be little question that decreases in nutrient loading (both organic and inorganic forms of nitrogen and phosphorus) will reduce the risk of toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates, hypoxia [low oxygen levels] and fish kills," the report states.

The report recommends efforts to manage nutrient loading for "all major sources" of nitrogen and phosphorus, including animal manure, human waste, commercial fertilizers and air pollution.

Bill Street, staff scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the report validates the group's push for nutrient reduction.

"It reaffirms the importance of the governor's package, and it talks about the need to address all [nutrient] sources," he said.

Doubts expressed

The report also includes admissions of uncertainty that could comfort opponents of the governor's plan to require farmers to adopt and carry out pollution controls. In particular, the report says there is not enough evidence to establish a causal relationship between specific nutrient sources and Pfiesteria outbreaks.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Lower Shore Republican and the legislature's most outspoken defender of the chicken industry, pointed to that lack of proof as reason to go slow in regulating agriculture.

"I just think we're jumping the gun before the scientists finish," said Stoltzfus. "There's no question in my mind that there's pure politics driving this, not science."

North Carolina response

The panel's report, requested by North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., comes in response to that state's problems with Pfiesteria -- it was in North Carolina that Pfiesteria piscicida was first found. The state has been criticized for responding slowly to toxic outbreaks in its waters.

Thomas C. Malone, director of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, called the "Raleigh Report" the "very objective perspective" of scientists from outside the mid-Atlantic region. Malone, who also helped shape the "Cambridge Consensus," was the only scientist to participate in both studies.

The report comes as Maryland legislators are weighing controversial proposals by Glendening to regulate urban and agricultural runoff.

The difficulty of selling the program to nonscientist lawmakers was illustrated yesterday as state scientists and administration officials briefed a skeptical Eastern Shore delegation.

Lawmakers repeatedly challenged the scientists about evidence suggesting a link between nutrient runoff and Pfiesteria, while scientists stuck by their estimates that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution and 83 percent of the phosphorus pollution on the Shore.

Stoltzfus found significance in measurements showing lower phosphorus levels in the agricultural stretch of the Pocomoke River where fish kills occurred than higher upstream, where the river flows through protected areas.

But scientists said the lower levels downstream were likely the result of algae, an important food source for Pfiesteria-like organisms, absorbing the phosphorus.

'Emergency is over'

Stoltzfus suggested the entire problem has been exaggerated. "I would suggest that the emergency is over as far as Pfiesteria," he said.

He told Dr. Georges Benjamin, the state's deputy secretary for jTC public health, that he wished the health department would reassure people that Pfiesteria exposure is "not a serious disease" and that a bad cold could have more impact.

Benjamin said symptoms of exposure, such as disorientation and memory loss, could have serious consequences, especially for people piloting boats or driving cars.

Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, a Talbot County Republican, said it would be a mistake to emulate the tobacco industry and deny that any problem exists.

"It may not be a link with Pfiesteria, but clearly nutrients are associated with water quality," he said. "It's just how we get to where we need to be that the debate breaks down."

Shore legislators said they are preparing an alternative version of the governor's bill and hope to have it ready early next week.

The report is available on the Internet at http: //www2.ncsu. edu/ncsu/wrri/news+views.html

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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