Limits on poultry business urged Coalition wants to ban new farms as follow-up to recent runoff law

3-year moratorium sought

November 19, 1998|By Chris Guy and Heather Dewar | Chris Guy and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

WYE MILLS -- A coalition of environmental groups and dissident farmers is seeking a three-year moratorium on new or expanded livestock operations in Maryland.

Calling the Delmarva Peninsula's $1.5 billion poultry business the largest unregulated industry in the Chesapeake Bay region, the activists say their proposal would buy time while state and federal regulators finalize rules for an industry that has been slow to limit its water pollution. The Eastern Shore of Maryland is the largest part of the peninsula.

The coalition -- the Maryland Sierra Club, the Eastern Shore's HAZTRAK Coalition and the Delmarva Contract Poultry Growers Association -- says the ban is a necessary follow-up to new water-quality legislation passed in Annapolis last spring.

That proposal aims at limiting the runoff from manure that scientists suspect contributed to the 1997 Maryland outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida.

"We should not be expanding our production at a time when the state and the federal governments are still developing programs," said Chris Bedford, Sierra Club president. "This is just plain common sense. It's a fundamental health and environmental issue."

Supporters acknowledge that the proposal, patterned after similar restrictions in other states, faces an uphill battle in the General Assembly.

"I don't think there's any way in the world that the legislature is going to whack the poultry industry two years in a row," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from Princess Anne. "To continue to single out one segment of our economy like agriculture is just economically irresponsible."

The Glendening administration refused yesterday to take a position on the proposal. Instead, Glendening's chief legislative officer Joseph Bryce said Maryland's new law contains "short-term and long-term ways to manage waste from animal operations."

"The legislation that was passed was more extensive and more progressive than any [farm runoff] pollution law in the country," Bryce said. "I don't think it would be unreasonable for the General Assembly to see what the fruits of that legislation are before they would act again."

The proposed Maryland-wide moratorium would include any new operation or farm expansion of 50,000 chickens or 1,250 hogs. Supporters also want the state to ban manure containment lagoons -- commonly used on hog and cattle feedlots but not in the poultry industry -- except on small cattle and dairy farms.

The proposal, they say, should require large producers such as Perdue or Tyson to pay the full cost of disposing of animal waste and allow Maryland counties to pass their own ordinances, even if they are more stringent than state and federal standards.

The coalition's proposal comes as the poultry industry and other big livestock operations face the end of an era of unregulated growth. Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate big livestock operations 20 years ago under the Clean Water Act, but the agency has imposed pollution restrictions on only about 1,600 of the nation's 450,000 feedlots.

Nationwide, chicken and hog farms produce 1.4 billion tons of manure, a major source of nutrients that damage rivers and streams, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Animal waste pollutes about one in 10 U.S. waterways, the EPA estimates.

That is changing. In September the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a plan to regulate the largest animal-feeding operations, those with 1,000 or more cows or 100,000 or more chickens. Mandatory pollution controls would also be applied in places like the Lower Eastern Shore, with its heavy clusters of smaller chicken houses.

Those regulations won't go into effect until sometime between 2002 and 2005. In the meantime, as public concern about animal waste pollution grows, 10 states, including Maryland, have imposed regulations on poultry houses, hog farms or both.

North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kentucky have adopted moratoriums on new hog-raising operations. Kansas requires countywide referendums on any new, large corporate farms. Alabama, Tennessee and Indiana have imposed restrictions on chicken houses, and Oklahoma is about to do so. Sussex County, Va., has passed a ban on new or expanded poultry operations.

Maryland's law controlling poultry waste is the toughest in the nation in spite of the fact that it won't fully take effect until 2002, said Robin Marks of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.

"Basically there's an assumption that unlike the hog industry, which stores its waste in manure lagoons, poultry has this dry litter so it's not a problem," Marks said. "It's become a huge loophole. Most states don't regulate poultry at all."

The EPA has been trying to convince the big poultry companies to follow the hog industry's lead and agree to voluntary manure-control measures. But the so-called "poultry dialogue" between the companies and the federal government ended this summer without an agreement.

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