Phosphorus measure’s death was no easy feat

Phosphorus with Jump

Gov. Larry Hogan’s withdrawal of phosphorous management regulations is being met with relief by some, and guarded optimism by others.

Delegate Carl Anderton, who this week said he’s happy with the governor’s actions, received e-mails from farmers who are “cautiously relieved.”

“They know that’s not the end of it. The question is now, will it come forward again as a piece of legislation?  We’ll work to find common ground for legislation and not just regulations,” he said.

Lawmakers how will have opportunity to study all causes of bay pollution, not just poultry industry run-off, he said.

“We can come in fresh and be able to look at it through our own eyes. Our friends on the western shore were doing what they thought was the best thing to protect the bay, but we have to look at it from all angles,” he said.

“We have a lot of folks on the Shore here who are not only farmers, but just about any job on the peninsula is connected to poultry in one way or another. If you’re a doctor, who are your patients? If you work in the mall, who are your customers? Likely, they are people who work for the poultry industry or a subsidiary,” Anderton said.

The Phosphorous Management Tool and related regulations would have been debated this legislative session, with stiff opposition from farmers, the Delmarva Poultry Industry and leading lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Mathias.

Mathias said he’s “very pleased” the governor pulled the regulations and determined to find a suitable answer to protecting the bay.

“We’re going to get this right. It will come back more coherent, with more thorough review, discussion and the like as we move forward. On the Eastern Shore, particularly, I have to represent the farming community.  I have to represent the tourism community. Clean water is so important,” he said.

Mathias said he has fought against the regulations since July 2013. “It was very rash, as originally proposed. They didn’t even have an economic impact summary attached to them. There weren’t even public hearings surroundings them,” he said.

A few days before the Jan. 14 legislative session began, Mathias was hoping Hogan had “an option to reject them.”

He did indeed, acting quickly after he was inaugurated and withdrawing regulations from the Maryland Register, stopping them from taking effect in February. The Register publishes actions taken by state agencies and the governor, and changes to Code of Maryland Regulations.

“All regulations that were scheduled for final publication on Jan. 23 will not be published,” Hogan’s spokeswoman, Shareese Churchill, said last week. Hogan directed state agencies to begin “a comprehensive  review of all pending regulations … this review process is to allow public input, public hearing and full due process before regulations are finalized,” she said.

Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, clarified that Hogan stopped the regulation, but the tool still exists.

“A lot of people and activist groups are saying this is a chicken manure issue. The regulation as proposed was for all farmers throughout the state of Maryland, not just chicken farmers,” he said.

DPI officials look forward to working with Hogan and his administration and seeing if new types of regulations are proposed, Satterfield said.

“We await whatever legislation might be introduced. We’re not waiting with great support, but we understand a bill will be introduced to require Maryland farmers to use this tool in a similar manner that the regulation would have required them to use it, so the legislation could be worse than the regulation,” he said.

Satterfield had written to former Gov. Martin O’Malley in November, arguing against the PMT, which was meant to prevent harmful run-off into the Chesapeake Bay.

“There are no data indicating how much less phosphorous will enter the bay through the use of the tool. Additionally, there are no data showing how the costs of preventing phosphorous movement to the bay through the use of this tool compares to a per-pound or per-ton basis compared to the other practices, such as septic system, wastewater treatment plants or storm water management upgrades,” Satterfield wrote.

He stressed farmers have been making progress, but water quality improvements might not “show up for years because of the slow movement of sub-surface water.”

He also sent a 10-page letter to the department of agriculture, stating there have been significant water quality improvements and saying proposed regulations can’t quantify the amount of phosphorous that will go into the bay.

Salisbury University’s Dr. Memo Diriker completed an economic impact study that indicated there could be cost to taxpayers in the tens of millions of dollars, which would further complicate the state’s financial situation, Satterfield said.

He said it would be wise to wait for the updated Chesapeake Bay Model, due in 2017, because the current Chesapeake Bay improvement plan was driven by a model that contains inaccuracies.

“There are things farmers are doing to make improvements that were not taken into consideration,” he said.

The University of Delaware researched chickens in Sussex County and concluded the amount of manure affecting the Chesapeake Bay is only one-fifth of what the Environmental Protection Agency estimated, Satterfield said.

Phosphorous concentration was half of what the EPA declared, as was nitrogen, so how much is going into the bay was overestimated, he said.

He blamed inaccuracies on the EPA using a study from 30 years ago, before farmers instituted improvements such as using chicken feed that decreases the amount of phosphorous in excrement. That started about 10 years ago.

Eastern Shore leaders who opposed the PMT were concerned it would harm the agriculture industry, a mainstay on the Shore they want to protect. Among them was Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver, who wrote to Sen. Paul Pinksy and Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, asking for a hearing “to discuss fiscal implications that would result” from the PMT.

Culver said county leaders wanted to discuss “the underlying scientific assumptions that we believe are flawed.”

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has manure limits that took effect in 2012. Stream protection takes effect in 2015 and a ban on spreading manure begins in 2016, with complete implementation by 2020, Culver wrote.

Mathias had earlier written to Hogan, state leadership and members of the legislative review committee. Those members received regulations from outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley the beginning of December, and would have been charged with approving them.

He wrote to the president of the senate and speaker of the house, asking for a full hearing and more time to  examine them.

“We want to make sure the science is right. Farmers want to do their part, but the regulations were onerous to them. It was predicated on science that is faulty,” the senator said.

He credited farmers for cooperating by planting cover crops and reducing the amount of fertilizer used.

His concerns about the regulations never precluded his desire to protect the environment.

“I’m looking for that balance, but I look at our economy here, how critical it is for agriculture, certainly how critical it is for tourism. We have to make sure we have clean water. Our fishing and boating are held to tremendously high standards,” he said.

“The farming community is not saying they don’t want to do their share, but they don’t want to be overburdened.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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