Key senators have put language in the state budget bill that would stall Maryland's efforts to limit one of the Chesapeake Bay's main pollutants, phosphorus.
The amendment by the Budget & Taxation Committee would prohibit the state from issuing new regulations on phosphorus, pending the results of an economic impact study. And when that is done, the committee would have 45 days for review and to recommend further action.
Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., an Eastern Shore Democrat who sought the budget restriction, says he wants to shield the state's farmers and the poultry industry from potentially very costly and disruptive regulations.
Issuing new rules "doesn't have to be done overnight," said Mathias, noting that the bay restoration effort is due for a complete review in 2017. "So we have time to look at this very thoroughly and very closely to make sure that we know exactly what we're doing, what it's going to cost to do it, where the monies are going to come from."
Environmentalists say further delay of the rules — which were first pledged in 2011 — would be a setback in Maryland's effort to reduce the dead zones that are the result of nutrient pollution of the bay.
"Everyone has recognized the need for this for years, and it's been delayed and delayed and delayed," said Bob Gallagher, chairman of the West/Rhode Riverkeeper organization.
The full Senate is expected to vote on the budget this week.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged he'd institute the rules as part of the state's plan for restoring the bay. Three times last year his administration proposed — and withdrew — regulations requiring farmers to use an analytical tool developed by the University of Maryland to determine which fields are oversaturated and therefore should not be fertilized with chicken or other animal manure.
The rules have provoked an outcry from hundreds of farmers and from poultry industry officials, who question the science behind the restrictions and complain about the potential economic impact. Eastern Shore grain farmers rely on manure from the millions of chickens raised there to fertilize fields, and they worry that the higher cost of chemical fertilizer could hurt their livelihood. Poultry farmers also fear they could not afford the costs of disposing of their animals' manure if it can no longer be used to fertilize nearby fields.
Agriculture is the leading source of phosphorus, one of two nutrients causing algae blooms and dead zones in the bay, according to University of Maryland researchers. Levels of the nutrient have built up in soils in farm fields as a result of repeated use of manure as fertilizer, leading to runoff into nearby streams.
Researchers say they don't know for sure how much of the state's soil is leaking phosphorus or on the verge, but a limited survey found 80 percent of fields checked on the Lower Shore, the heart of the state's poultry industry, would need to curtail fertilizing crops with manure. As many as half the fields checked statewide might have to cut back as well.
"It really is a situation where you're currently applying far more phosphorus than is needed for crops in certain areas," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "You're building up inventory, and that will just make matters worse in the long run."
Mathias and Del. Norman H. Conway, a Democrat representing Wicomico and Worcester counties, have introduced legislation that would require the state Department of Agriculture to study the economic impact of the phosphorus regulations before they can be imposed. Farmers and their supporters urged lawmakers to approve the measures, but both bills remain in committee.
Mathias said he sought to tie the administration's hands in the budget to ensure the issue gets proper attention, and he said the scientific basis for the rules is called into question by studies done in Delaware and Virginia.
"Here we have one of the [state's] largest industries, and all I'm asking to do is protect it," he said. "I know we can protect it. We can find that balance. ... I want to make sure it's done right."
Maryland ranked eighth among states in chicken production in 2012, raising 304 million birds worth more than $800 million, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group. But those birds produce hundreds of millions of pounds of manure annually, and manure runoff accounts for 26 percent of the phosphorus getting into the bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some environmentalists say they're worried that those arguing for more study really want to prevent any restrictions.
"That to me isn't a question of getting it right," said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's a question of someone saying they don't want regulations to happen."