Farm runoff cap in place Glendening to sign measure today aimed at stopping Pfiesteria

Nutrients are targeted

Seven-year deadline, subsidies help soften pollution crackdown

May 12, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will launch a counter-offensive against Pfiesteria in Maryland waters today with the signing of landmark legislation aimed at reducing pollution coming from the land.

The signing caps a nearly yearlong effort to adopt a strategy for battling the microbe, whose toxic outbreaks proved fatal to fish and harmful to humans on the Eastern Shore last summer.

In order to win passage of the bill, Glendening had to agree to some critical compromises that were hard for environmentalists to accept. Nevertheless, the "green" lobby appears to have decided to declare a victory.

Even after being softened, the bill retains mandatory controls on farm nutrient runoff -- a provision environmentalists know they would never have achieved without last year's Pfiesteria outbreaks in three Maryland waterways.

In the wake of those outbreaks, scientists reached a consensus that nutrient pollution apparently helps foster the conditions that push Pfiesteria to its toxic stage. That finding led Glendening to propose a sweeping water quality initiative with a heavy emphasis on farm pollution -- sparking one of the most heated debates of the 1998 legislative session.

The compromises involve two provisions that environmentalists see as serious weaknesses in a bill that is in other ways one of the nation's strongest.

In one key concession, Glendening and his allies agreed to give farmers up to seven years to comply with pollution control plans. In another, they agreed to give enforcement authority to the Maryland Department of Agriculture -- an agency whose primary concern has always been to promote agriculture.

Dropped from the legislation was the expanded role the administration had envisioned for the Maryland Department of the Environment -- an agency feared by farmers as a den of fanatical "enviro-cops."

That concession was just one of several sweeteners -- including an estimated $45 million in tax credits and other state funding -- the bill extends to agriculture in return for the farm lobby's abandoning its longtime opposition to mandatory pollution control plans.

So important were mandatory plans to environmentalists that they were willing to accept legislation that goes out of its way to avoid punishing farmers. The bill is written so that only the most deliberately defiant farmer is likely to feel the sting of relatively modest fines.

All sides acknowledge that nothing in the bill will prevent Pfiesteria outbreaks from returning to Maryland waters this summer. But by winning passage of the bill, Glendening appears to have protected himself against any political ill effects of a recurrence.

"I think it turned out to be a win-win," said Glendening, using the standard political phrase for an outcome in which all sides can claim victory. "Everyone concedes we got 80 to 85 percent of what we needed."

In fact, the whopping margins in favor of passage -- 139-0 in the House and 39-8 in the Senate -- were deceptive. The bill came very close to dying in conference committee in the last days of the legislative session. Only after the governor intervened with the chicken industry's chief lobbyist was an impasse resolved.

Whether the legislation will make a difference for the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's coastal bays will take years to determine.

The final deadline for implementation of plans to control phosphorus runoff from farms that use manure as fertilizer will not take effect until 2005. Environmentalists cite the time line as their deepest disappointment with the bill.

"A seven-year delay is a long time," said Tom Grasso, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I think [the legislation] will help, but it won't help in the immediate future."

But to Rick Nelson, president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau, seven years is barely enough time to come up with an economical alternative to spreading chicken manure on land already saturated with phosphorus.

"It's going to take a lot longer time than that to do anything with the amount of manure we've got down here," said Nelson, a chicken and grain farmer.

Some Maryland farms will have to move forward even faster. Under a court settlement reached last week between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson's growers will have to adopt phosphorus runoff control plans over the next two to three years. While the settlement will apply to several hundred farms, the legislation will apply to all 13,000 in the state.

Robbin Marks, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Maryland bill breaks new ground in some key respects.

She said the legislation's strength is that it deals with phosphorus pollution in addition to nitrogen -- something few other states' laws do. And she noted that the bill imposes controls on all types of farms, not just animal feedlots.

Marks said the bill's weakness is in its enforcement provisions -- particularly its use of the Agriculture Department as its environmental enforcer.

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