Panel member criticizes governor

Glendening owes farmers an apology on Pfiesteria, he says

March 09, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening doesn't understand agriculture, doesn't care about it and "should offer a public apology to farmers for all that Pfiesteria hysteria," a member of the Maryland Agricultural Commission said yesterday.

Russell Watson, who was appointed by Glendening to the 21-member agricultural advisory board three years ago, also offered a motion that the governor, or a member of his staff, attend the group's monthly meetings. It was approved unanimously by the 15 members in attendance.

Watson wants the governor to ask the legislature to amend the Water Quality Improvement Act to make it voluntary.

This is the legislation that was enacted after fish kills forced the 1997 closing of parts of three tributaries leading to the Chesapeake Bay. It is designed to prevent farm runoff from making its way into the bay.

Scientists are not certain of the role Pfiesteria played in the fish kills. Last month, two scientific studies, by the U. S. Geological Survey studies and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, concluded that Pfiesteria might not have been the culprit.

Recent reports noted

Watson, 64, the operator of a Prince George's County nursery, used this and other reports as evidence to support his argument.

"We have been wronged," he said of state farmers. "We have been railroaded, and we are being treated unfairly. Every farmer that I talk to knows that it's unfair, but they are afraid to rock the boat. I have the courage to stand up for my principles."

Watson's criticism came as a surprise to other commission members and to State Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts, who attended the session.

Told to temper remarks

Virts told Watson he needed to temper his comments a bit and suggested that it was not wise to ask the governor to make a public apology.

"In Southern Maryland, we do things differently," Virts said.

Jerry Truitt, who represents the poultry industry on the commission, said "a lot of us agree with what Russ says."

However, Truitt expressed his concern that the governor might retaliate and get rid of the advisory commission if it sought an apology.

The group decided only to draft a letter to the governor urging that he or a staff member attend the monthly session to get a better understanding of agriculture, the state's largest industry.

Agriculture, including the production of food and fiber, is a $17.8 billion-a-year business sustaining more than 400,000 jobs in the state, according to a federal study released in 1998.

Hank Passi, chairman of the commission, said the letter would not go to the governor for about 60 days. "This is a very sensitive matter, and we want every member in agreement with what we write," he said.

Michael E. Morrill, a spokesman for the governor, said it would be impossible for Glendening to attend all of the commission meetings. "He would never get any work done," Morrill said.

He said Virts is the governor's representative at the commission meetings.

Protecting the state's environment is the job of every citizen, including farmers, Morrill said.

As evidence of Glendening's concern for agriculture, he noted that the governor directed $3 million to farmers last year to help offset losses from a severe drought, and that 5 percent of the tobacco settlement will go to farmers to make a transition to other crops.

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