Chicken-hearted?

Our view: In striking a balance on poultry, state acts too cautiously

June 03, 2008

It would be a mistake to think of farmers as a threat to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Generally, farming is far less harmful to water quality than most land uses. So regulating farming, whenever possible, requires a cooperative and open-minded approach by government.

The question is: Has the O'Malley administration struck the proper balance with its recent decision to scale back proposed rules governing poultry farms? The evidence suggests strongly that it has not.

At issue is what to do about the hundreds of millions of pounds of poultry litter produced each year by Maryland farmers. Whether such waste is spread on fields or stored on site, runoff from it contributes hugely to an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in local waterways and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

This is a problem that has been around for decades, and what Gov. Martin O'Malley is seeking to do - require the largest polluters to be licensed by the Department of the Environment - has never been done before. Farmers are concerned about this new expense at a time when the industry is already coping with higher costs. Some protest that it will take thousands of dollars to hire consultants to submit nutrient management plans before the first nickel is ever spent on improving the environment.

Fair enough, but at minimum one would expect Maryland farmers to emerge from this process with the greenest operations in the watershed. After all, no state benefits more from a healthy Chesapeake.

But that's simply not the case. As The Sun's Tom Pelton points out, Maryland farmers are permitted to keep manure uncovered outdoors for several months at a time while neighboring states, including Pennsylvania, restrict such practices to no more than 15 days.

Meanwhile, the new permits would only be required of about 75 poultry growers, a small portion of the industry. Surely there is a way to bring more of the smaller operators into compliance too.

Let us not vilify poultry farmers, but let's not compromise on water quality standards either. Much has been demanded on the bay's behalf of those who don't farm; the flush tax on sewer bills and stricter controls on shoreline development are but examples. More can be expected of farmers as well.

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