State seen pushing ahead with phosphorous regs

The tractor discs a field off of Porter Mill Road in Hebron.

If you want to make a chicken farmer irritated, bringing up three words will do it: Phosphorus Management Tool.

The Maryland portion of Delmarva’s approximately 1,700 poultry-farming families have been on edge about the possible enactment of such a regulation system for more than a year. With the 2014 election firmly in the rear view mirror, there’s concern the departing state administration will rush the regulations into enforcement, yet there’s hope the plan will die on the vine.

The issue is “still a live wire,” state Sen. Jim Mathias, D-38, said this week.

“I’m doing everything I can to kill it,” he said. “It looks like this could happen — I’m committed to stopping it.”

Chicken-growers’ trade group, the Delmarva Poultry Industry dispatched a post-election letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley last week, asking the expiring-term executive to back off on implementing any PMT regulations during his remaining weeks in office.

Still, the proposed regulations were submitted for legislative review, effective Dec. 1. Said Mathias: “They’ve started the procedural clock on this.”

By submitting the PMT plan last week, the rules could potentially be green-lighted for state Agriculture Department implementation before the governor’s office changes hands in January.

Next, the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review has 45 days for review and comment; Mathias said he and other Shore lawmakers “have demanded a full hearing.”

“Too much is unknown and too much is at risk,” said Mathias. “There are the efficiencies questions, there’s adversity to farmers, there’s the delicacy of the (current) economy.”

Though he has said he won’t talk about policy matters until he’s inaugurated, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan said several times while on the campaign trail that he fears the tools possible effects on Eastern Shore poultry farmers.

Hogan has suggested he might act to block the regulations, while seeking solutions that don’t over-burden farmers.

None of the Mid- or Lower Shore candidates elected Nov. 4 supports the O’Malley administration’s fertilizer-reducing plan, and most are openly hostile to the initiative.

State Agriculture Secretary Earl F. “Buddy” Hance, a man caught between the farmers he seeks to help farmers, and his boss the governor, hasn’t offered any insight on whether there’s room for compromise.

Meanwhile, on the environmental front, the sentiment is that now is the time to act.

Said Alison Prost, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: “The state should be flexible in the implementation, but it can delay no longer. There’s no other way to get the Maryland Eastern Shore back on track for clean water.”

Phosphorus with JumpAnn Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which is made up of elected officials from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, agreed: “This is one of the really big opportunities to control phosphorus pollution.”

Through the summer and early fall, people on both sides of the issue have been awaiting an economic study on the PMT’s possible impacts on the local economies.

That much-anticipated report has an important local connection: Coordinated by Dr. Memo Diriker, and drafted by students/researchers at Salisbury University’s business center, the report puts a hefty price tag on how much phosphorus-rich chicken litter would need to be shipped elsewhere, and how much all that might cost.

In light of BEACON’s research, Hance has only said that officials need to study an economic study on the plan — a report whose release was delayed until the day following the election.

For DPI Executive Director Bill Satterfield, Diriker’s report is proof that O’Malley & Co. are on the wrong track.

“(The analysis) shows there will be millions of dollars in expenses for the state’s farmers, but no off-setting of environmental benefits.”

Pointing to other pollution management plans already enacted in the last decade, Satterfield wrote: “Let’s allow the results of these earlier to show results before adding another layer of mandates.”

Since 2006, curtailing practices that use animal manure as fertilizer has been a cornerstone to the Democratic governor’s blueprint for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Phosphorous has inundated the soils of farms all over the Peninsula, because it is an ingredient in nourishing soy beans, corn and and other crops.

The state has enacted green “buffer zones” to keep phosphorus contained within fields, in hopes it doesn’t leach into bay waters.

Once in the bay, phosphorus is known to help create “dead zones,” where fertilized underwater plant life sucks oxygen from the water while clouding sun light.

According to the BEACON study, poultry farmers would have haul away an estimated 228,000 tons of manure annually. Growers would have to pay $28 per to have their manure hauled out of the region, and $60 to $75 per ton to replace the manure with a comparable amount of safe chemical fertilizer.

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

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