No more free pass

October 18, 2007

For too long, the poultry industry in this state has wielded economic and political clout to escape responsibility for its primary role in the slow, steady poisoning of the Chesapeake Bay.

As reported this week by The Sun's Tom Pelton, a voluntary program for disposing of the 1 billion pounds of manure produced each year on the Eastern Shore's factory-like chicken farms simply hasn't worked. Nitrogen from the waste still flows into the bay and its tributaries at twice the rate allowed by state standards.

The O'Malley administration should be congratulated for crafting regulations that would impose rules for responsible management of this polluting waste. The challenge will be to ensure that companies such as Perdue that profit most from the sale of their chickens share in the cost of dealing with the manure. Individual farmers should not have to bear the burden alone. Legislation may ultimately be required.

No longer should the poultry industry, because it provides so many jobs in a relatively poor corner of the state, get a pass on bay pollution. It has severely damaged Maryland's seafood industry and threatens the recreational boating and water sports industries as well. What about those jobs?

Certainly, overdevelopment, urban runoff, outmoded sewage treatment plants and other forms of agriculture share the blame. Everyone is part of the problem. And everyone must be part of a solution.

Regulation of the chicken industry is difficult because farmers are mostly contractors who own neither the birds nor much else in the production process except for the waste that results. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed regulations in 1998 that required chicken companies and farmer contractors to share the responsibility for manure disposal. But the industry won a court ruling in 2003 that found the regulations exceeded the state's authority under existing law, and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose not to appeal.

Farmers told Mr. Pelton they are especially careful about waste disposal since the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak sent a scare through the state, and no doubt many are. But nitrogen pollution in the Pocomoke River hasn't improved in the decade since, although 95 percent of the farmers in surrounding Worcester County have nutrient-management plans. What's missing is enforcement to get the job done.

Occasionally, a scheme comes along to turn the poop into gold - as fertilizer pellets, for example, or as a cheap source of fuel. Until one of those ventures pans out, though, the task at hand is mostly to spread manure as thinly as possible on fields and not let huge piles languish for weeks.

It's not easy, perhaps, but it's well worth the reward of a productive, swimmable bay along with that barbecued chicken.

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