ANNAPOLIS – Eastern Shore lawmakers will unveil their own bill this week to fight pfiesteria, setting up a showdown with the Glendening administration over the toxic microbe.
Shore lawmakers have strongly objected to provisions in Gov. Parris Glendening’s plan that call for fines of up to $5,000 on farmers who fail to meet new standards set forth in his bill.
The alternative bill was still being fine-tuned this weekend but two provisions were clear: Farmers would not face any fines and they would have more than four years to reduce fertilizer runoff, as the governor’s bill requires.
Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, the influential chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said the bill would also address poultry companies’ role in disposing of excess chicken manure.
He would not discuss that role, but Glendening’s bill has been criticized for failing to address this issue. On that issue, at least, farmers and environmentalists appear to be in agreement.
“You can’t ask farmers to pay the entire burden of manure disposal, particularly when you’re talking about 400,000 tons of chicken manure produced by the poultry companies annually,” said Tom Grasso, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland office.
“That’s the part of the cost of this program we think the companies should pay for,” he said.
A spokesman for Glendening on Friday repeated the administration’s position that the governor will “work with” poultry companies to find ways they can help.
Runoff from farms fertilized with nutrient-rich chicken manure has been cited as a likely trigger for Pfiesteria piscicida, a microorganism that was blamed for fish kills in the state last summer.
The microbe has also been linked to human ailments, including memory loss in people exposed to pfiesteria-infested waters.
The fines farmers would face for failing to control runoff remain one of the most contentious provisions of Glendening’s plan.
“You don’t have any group in this state that’s more environmentally conscious than the farmer,” said Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico.
“When we set targets and we ask them to work with us, in the past they’ve stepped to the plate. I don’t have any doubts that the farming community won’t continue to do that,” Conway said.
Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the fines are necessary because “we have to deal with this aggressively.” But he said the fines probably would not affect most farmers.
“We believe that farmers will operate in good faith, (but) there has to be some mechanism in place for those who refuse to put these controls in place,” he said.
Feldmann said the governor is open to establishing an appeal process for farmers who cannot comply by the 2002 deadline.
Grasso disputed the effectiveness of farmers’ voluntary efforts to cut back on nutrient-laden fertilizer.
“We’ve had a voluntary program for nitrogen-based nutrients for years but the numbers for nitrogen keep going up,” he said. “Despite the best efforts of farmers, it hasn’t been effective in reducing nutrients.
“It’s one thing to say, `We have a program.’ It’s another thing to show results,” Grasso said.
But Conway said plans to manage phosphorus, the other nutrient linked to pfiesteria, are new and untried, so Shore lawmakers will call for further research. Phosphorus reduction is a key element of the governor’s plan.
“From what science has told us, sometimes it takes 13 years to (produce) reductions of phosphorus,” he said. “The phosphorus aspect of the program is relatively new. It reacts differently as an element than nitrogen does.”
Legislators, scientists and farmers have spent weeks challenging a gubernatorial commission’s conclusion that farmers must control nutrient runoff to prevent another pfiesteria outbreak.
“I don’t know how you’re going to reduce something that is going to be around forever, being used by some animal or plant,” Guns said.
One of the problems of regulating nutrients is that the bay is “inherently fertile and productive,” said Dan Terlizzi, a water quality specialist with the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension Service. He spoke at a meeting on pfiesteria Thursday at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“We cannot guarantee that reducing nutrients will help solve this problem because the bay is a nutrient-rich system,” he said, explaining the difficulty of managing the complex bay ecosystem.
The commission’s findings have been disputed because pfiesteria’s effects have only been directly observed in laboratory settings, out of its unpredictable natural habitat.
Farmers charged that the commission’s findings are based on inference. But the chairman of the panel, former Gov. Harry Hughes, stressed the strength of the inferences.
“I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that nutrients are part of the problem,” he said.
“The commission felt very strongly that it’s very important that we reduce these nutrients. You have to have a deadline in order to get it done,” Hughes said.
Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, R-Talbot, conceded that trying to deny the connection between nutrients and pfiesteria may be futile.
“It’s almost like the tobacco companies getting up and saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer,” he said to a meeting of Shore delegates Friday.
Schisler said he agrees with the governor’s goals, but “how we get to where we need to be is where the debate breaks down.”