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As a Departing Gift to the Bay, Governor O'Malley Proposes Poultry Manure Regulations

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As one of his last acts as governor, Martin O’Malley kept a promise to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.  On Friday, he proposed regulations that would prohibit the spreading of any more poultry manure as fertilizer on many Eastern Shore farm fields.

Decades of over-application of manure from the poultry industry has meant the soil is over-saturated with phosphorus on some farms. The crops can't absorb all the nutrients. So the phosphorus runs off to pollute streams and cause and fish-killing “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay.

O’Malley’s action was praised by environmentalists, who have complained that the poultry industry is a major source of pollution in the Bay that long avoided regulation by wielding its political influence. 

“This is absolutely a necessary step if the Bay is ever going to get cleaned up," said Scott Edwards, a director at Food and Water Watch. "You hear (the poultry) industry talk a lot about how they’re meeting all their milestones and they’re doing more than their share to clean up the Bay, and quite frankly that’s simply not true.”

O’Malley kept his promise curiously late in his term. He pledged to impose the manure regulations three years ago, but delayed them twice after protests from the poultry industry.   The Democratic governor acted on the last possible day he could impose regulations that would take effect before his Republican successor, Larry Hogan, takes office in January. 

Hogan campaigned against the poultry regulations.  O’Malley’s 11th hour action raises the possibility that Hogan will try to overturn or gut the rules once he takes office, which would not require approval from the Democratic-majority General Assembly.    Democratic lawmakers could potentially respond, however, by passing a bill in the upcoming session to make the regulations a law that Hogan could not ignore.

Hogan explained his opposition to the regulations, called the Phosphorus Management Tool, during a debate last month.

 “I helped lead the fight against the Phosphorus Management Tool when they came out with these regulations," Hogan said.  "They were so burdensome and so onerous that it would really decimate the entire poultry industry and  grain industry on the Eastern Shore.”

If Hogan does throw out the regulations, he would be following  a similar path that his former boss, Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, walked when he took office in 2003. Ehrlich almost immediately overturned poultry regulations that his Democratic predecessor, Parris Glendening, put into place just before he left office. Those rules would have required big poultry companies like Perdue -- not the family farmers who work for Perdue on contract -- to take responsibility for managing excess manure properly so it does not pollute the Bay.

Buddy Hance, O’Malley’s Secretary of Agriculture, said the new phosphorus management regulations will be phased in over six years to minimize disruption to farms.

“The hope is that by implementing this tool it will have an impact and reduce the amount of phosphorus that is entering the Bay," Hance said. “We certainly hope that agriculture survives. We do not want to see the poultry industry leave the state.”

Here’s how the regulations will work.  Farmers measure the amount of phosphorous in their soil.  If the soil is saturated over a certain point --- 150 parts per million of phosphorus -- the farmers must stop or reduce application of manure or take other steps to halt runoff into streams.

An estimated  228,000 tons of excess poultry litter a year will have to be trucked from farms with saturated fields on the Delmarva Peninsula to other farms that are not overloaded with manure, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. 

 State officials plan to burn much of this manure to generate electricity in a waste-to-energy plant near the Wicomico County landfill.

The cost of trucking all this manure to other farms or the waste-burning power plant will be about $22 million. O’Malley administration officials say taxpayers will pay some of the cost, and the poultry companies and farmers will each pay a portion, too. 

Virgil Shockley, a poultry and grain farmer who lives near Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore, said  said the effect of the regulations likely will be that he will not be able to spread any more poultry manure as fertilizer on half of his corn fields.  To replace this manure, he said he would have to spend about $25,000 a year buying chemical nitrogen fertilizer if he wanted to keep growing corn. But he said that would not be affordable. 

“This is a business," Shockley said.  "I mean, if you don’t make money, you go out of business.  That's basically what it is.”

Environmentalists argue that, in fairness, the big poultry companies like Perdue—not family farmers like Shockley working on contract -- should pay all of the costs of dealing with the excess manure problem. The big companies own all the  chickens, and for years have been big profits by polluting the Chesapeake Bay.