State limits plan to curb pollution on chicken farms

Number of poultry operations included is reduced by half

May 24, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Responding to complaints from farmers, the O'Malley administration has scaled back its proposal to allow the state's environmental agency to start policing pollution from the Eastern Shore's huge poultry industry.

Revised rules released last night would require 75 to 100 of Maryland's largest poultry farms - instead of twice that number - to obtain industrial-style water pollution control permits. The permits would require a list of manure runoff control measures, and annual reporting to the Maryland Department of the Environment on how much waste the farms are producing and where it's going.

The regulations are the first to force poultry farms - one of the biggest sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay - to submit to inspections by Maryland's environmental agency.

But some environmentalists said they're frustrated that the state has weakened its proposal since draft regulations were released in January. Farmers complained at public hearings that the regulations required too much paperwork.

"It's a disgrace. Obviously, the industry got to them," Scott Edwards, legal director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said of the O'Malley administration. "We have seen no degree of commitment from anybody in Maryland to clean up this industry, despite lots of promises, and the Chesapeake Bay is paying the price."

In the original proposal released by the O'Malley administration in January, about 200 chicken farms were to be required to get water pollution control permits. The size cutoff for requiring the permits has risen from 75,000 square feet of combined chicken house space to 100,000 square feet.

The state has also dropped a $120 annual fee for farmers. And it's no longer requiring annual reporting to the MDE for about 100 chicken farms between 75,000 and 100,000 square feet. Those reports specify how many animals are on the farms, how much waste they're producing and where the manure is going.

Robert Summers, deputy secretary of the state Environment Department, said the revisions would mean less bureaucratic hassle for farmers than what the state proposed in January, but an equal amount of protection for the bay.

"The concern [of farmers] was that we were creating a lot of extra paperwork that would be expensive and time-consuming, but would not provide much in the way of environmental benefits," Summers said. "We took that comment very seriously."

Summers said the revised rules are as protective of waterways as the original proposal, because the roughly 100 mid-sized poultry farms no longer required to get permits will still be forced to certify to the MDE that they have nutrient plans and water quality management plans, which are written procedures farmers are supposed to follow to reduce runoff pollution. These poultry farms will also still be required to submit to state inspections, and will have to keep manure more than 100 feet from streams.

The newest revision of the permits isn't final, Summers said, and could change again before the state imposes them later this year.

Chuck Fry, vice president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said he's glad the revised permit is less burdensome to farmers. "I think its a move in the right direction. ... The paperwork involved in farming is getting immense," he said.

Gerald Winegrad, former chairman of the Maryland Senate's environmental matters subcommittee, said he found it suspicious that the state released the revisions the night before a holiday weekend. He said the state should require industrial-style water pollution control permits for all medium and large poultry farms, not just the large ones.

"This is gutless and feckless; it's really sad," said Winegrad. "I am personally upset that they have weakened what were already weak environmental regulations."

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