Runoff rules may exempt many farms

Md. poultry growers could get breaks

June 01, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

SALISBURY - Lee Richardson has taken steps to keep his chicken farm from polluting the Chesapeake Bay. He built storage sheds to hold manure so that rain won't wash it into a stream. He planted a double row of pine trees as another protection for the waterway.

But he also stores piles of manure outside without cover when the sheds won't hold the hundreds of tons produced by his 124,000 birds. Nobody from the government has ever inspected his waste heaps or taken water samples to see if they're contaminating the stream.

The lack of oversight from Maryland's environmental agency is likely to continue. Last week, the O'Malley administration revised proposed pollution-control rules meant for the state's 200 largest poultry farms, exempting half of them - including Richardson's - from permit requirements.

To Richardson, the administration's changes show sensitivity to family farmers, who complained that they would be burdened by the annual reporting, fees and inspections from the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We won a battle of paperwork that wasn't going to do us or the bay any good," he said.

But some public health scientists and environmentalists criticize the regulations as full of holes. Instead of prohibiting the outdoor storage of manure, the rules allow waste heaps to remain uncovered outside for up to 90 days.

The regulations don't require farmers to treat the manure, through composting, to remove bacteria before the waste is spread on fields as fertilizer.

And in the most recent revision of Maryland's program, inspection responsibility for many farms has been delegated from the environmental enforcement agency to the Department of Agriculture - whose main responsibility is to promote farms, not police them. The program includes no money to allow the Department of the Environment to hire inspectors to investigate farm runoff.

"That means there won't be much enforcement," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group. "It's very sad to see this process heading in exactly the wrong direction. It doesn't do any good to act like we're fixing the problem, and then not fix the problem."

Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the limits on outdoor storage of manure should be at least as strong in Maryland as in neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania. Both of those states prohibit chicken farms from storing waste piles uncovered for more than 15 days.

"It's not enough to be lagging behind other states," said Schwartz. "Maryland should be a leader in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay."

Jay Graham, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it's a mistake for Maryland to allow piles of manure to be stored outside, where they are likely to contaminate streams and drinking water supplies. He said treatment of the waste, through composting in sheds to kill bacteria, is essential.

"The same sort of contaminants we see in poultry waste we also see in human waste," said Graham, who studies poultry manure runoff on the Eastern Shore. "There are a lot of drug-resistant microorganisms that get into streams, and there are a lot of kids that play in water holes and people drink from the groundwater."

The state's poultry industry produces about 272 million chickens a year worth about $534 million. But it also generates about a billion pounds of manure annually, one of the largest sources of runoff pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The proposed rules are the Maryland Department of the Environment's first effort to regulate the industry, which is one of the biggest employers on the Eastern Shore. For years, poultry farms have been exempt from pollution-control rules that have applied to hog and cattle operations.

Under the new program, the MDE will be empowered to issue industrial-style water control permits to large poultry farms with lists of manure management and reporting requirements. For the first time, poultry farmers will have a limit on how close to waterways they can spread manure fertilizer and how long they can store waste outside.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, noted that former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration in 2004 considered but then dropped regulations that would have required permitting and inspections for the poultry industry. O'Malley is determined to move forward with regulations in a way that's not overly bureaucratic for farmers, Abbruzzese said.

"For the first time in Maryland's history, we will have strong regulations in place for the largest poultry farms to restore the bay and protect our environment," Abbruzzese said. "Where the previous administration failed to act, this administration has proposed regulations to reduce runoff into the bay in a way that makes sense for farmers."

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