ANNAPOLIS – Pfiesteria is a grave problem but Maryland farmers aren’t the only ones to blame, Eastern Shore lawmakers said Wednesday.
The legislators said protecting farmers from bearing the full costs of solving the pfiesteria problem will be one of their main goals in the 1998 General Assembly that started Wednesday.
Growth of the toxic Pfiesteria piscicida has been widely attributed to farm fertilizer runoff, but delegation members said they want to explore all possible causes before farmers are told to pay for preventative measures.
“We see there’s a problem, (but) we don’t want to see a rush to judgment,” said Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico, chairman of the Shore delegation.
A November report by the Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commmission found that runoff from chicken manure, widely used as fertilizer, contains nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel pfiesteria growth. But Conway said runoff from stormwater, water treatment plants and lawn fertilizer could also be the cause.
“What’s to say there aren’t … quantities of these in the water that are more toxic than nitrogen and phosphorus?” said Del. Bennett Bozman, D-Worcester.
State Agriculture Secretary Henry Virts estimated the cost minimizing chicken manure runoff, as proposed by the commission, could cost as much as $30 million.
But Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, R-Talbot, sees in the new proposals a long-term economic threat to Eastern Shore farmers generally.
“If we put costly new requirements on agriculture all we’re going to do is drive them out,” he said.
State farm bureaus operate a cooperative extension service to help farmers cut costs by applying fertilizer more efficiently. But that program has a backlog of applications, Schisler said, and should be a higher funding priority than enforcement of new chicken manure regulations.
“Farmers want to manage nutrients,” Schisler said. “As soon as you put penalty provisions in there, you turn that cooperative relationship into an adversarial relationship. I wonder if farmers will give (inspectors) the same access as before.”
Pfiesteria is one of many issues the delegation will be grappling with this session. With the state facing a projected $260 million surplus, Conway and others said they want to see greater funding of school construction.
The problem has been building up over time, he said.
“Every time a new community popped up, they didn’t build a school,” said Conway. “We’ve got every nook and cranny filled up and we don’t have any choice but to build.
“We’ve got book storage rooms that are now being used for instruction,” he said.
Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, R-Dorchester, said the surplus should fund tax relief for Maryland’s citizens.
“It’s the people’s money that has contributed to the surplus,” she said.
And Eastern Shore farmers would not see any personal surpluses if the wrong approach to controlling pfiesteria growth is taken, said Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil.
“Start putting bureaucratic red tape on these people and they’ll sell their houses,” he said.