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Hogan Administration Considers More Delay For Poultry Pollution Regulations

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More than two decades ago, an outbreak of toxic algae and fish kills in the Pocomoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore set off alarms about the dire state of the Chesapeake Bay’s health.

On December 1, 1997, a blue ribbon panel of experts, led by former Governor Harry Hughes, recommended that Maryland take “immediate” action to halt the over-application of poultry manure to farm fields, which was feeding the algal blooms.

The growth of industrial scale poultry operations – and the massive amount of excess manure they produce – had long been suspected as a major source of phosphorus overload in the soil and pollution in the Eastern Shore’s rivers. 

But the call for immediate limits on manure spreading ran immediately into the political power of the farm lobby in Maryland state government.  And so nothing significant happened on this problem for 13 years.

Then, finally, in 2010, former Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration promised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it would impose poultry manure application limits for farmers as part of Maryland’s new Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.

The O’Malley Administration published draft manure regulations in January 2013. But then it withdrew the rules that August, after farmers complained they hadn’t been given enough time to prepare for the change. 

For many Eastern Shore farmers, whose soils are saturated with phosphorus, the regulations – called the “Phosphorus Management Tool” – would mean that they – or the poultry companies like Perdue, or the state government -- would have to truck, or dispose of the excess manure, off site. And the farmers would instead have to buy nitrogen chemical fertilizer, which is more expensive but doesn't cause the phosphorus overload of manure.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture proposed the rules again in October 2013, and then withdrew them again a month later, after more protests from farmers. Finally, in December 2014, just before O’Malley left office, the state published the manure regulations a third time, this time with a gradual phase-in for farmers so that the restrictions would be in place for most farms six years later, by 2020.

However, in January 2015, newly elected Governor Larry Hogan took office and immediately withdrew the compromise regulations. His administration compromised the compromise, allowing yet another two years of delay for most farmers, until July 1, 2022.

Now, as this deadline approaches, the Hogan Administration is considering yet another compromise.  An advisory panel of the Maryland Department of Agriculture is scheduled to vote a week from Friday, on Dec. 13, whether to recommend at least another year delay to the deadlines for 210,000 acres of farms across the state.

The essential problem is that – after all these years of discussing the problem and writing up regulations – the Maryland Department of Agriculture still has not solved the original puzzle:  it simply does not know what to do with a half billion pounds of excess poultry manure every year.

The Hogan Administration, in essence, is asking for an extension – again—because it hasn’t done its homework. The state has not set aside enough money, or hired enough truckers, to transport the excess manure to farms outside of our region that need it.

The answer should be obvious:  The big poultry companies like Perdue that are making the most profit from the industry – not the taxpayers, and not the family farmers – should pay for the cost of either shipping the excess waste out of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, or burying it in lined landfills.

Instead of more delay that will hurt the Chesapeake Bay, the Hogan Administration should grow a spine and impose the costs on the business that is causing the problem in the first place.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.