On Monday, Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan announced that his first fight when he takes office next month will be to overturn new poultry manure regulations meant to reduce phosphorus runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.
“The first fight [when I take office] will be against these politically motivated, midnight-hour phosphorus management tool regulations that the outgoing administration is trying to force upon you in these closing days,” Mr. Hogan, a Republican, said in a speech to the Maryland Farm Bureau Convention in Ocean City, according to The Washington Times. “We won’t allow them to put you out of business, destroy your way of life or decimate your entire industry.”
His statement – combined with support for the pollution control rules among some Democratic lawmakers – suggests that a battle over the future of the Chesapeake Bay is brewing in the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session. Agriculture is the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, with 53 percent of the phosphorus pollution from Maryland coming from farms.
The farm manure management regulations proposed by the O’Malley Administration on November 14 would not shut down Maryland’s poultry industry, which produces about 300 million chickens a year and about a billion pounds of manure.
The rules would, however, require farmers to test their fields and modify their fertilization practices. Farmers would be restricted from applying more poultry manure as fertilizer to fields that are already over-saturated with phosphorus from chicken litter. The goal is to prevent excess phosphorus from running off into streams and causing algal blooms and fish-killing dead zones in the Bay.
Poultry industry records on file with the Maryland Department of the Environment show that Eastern Shore poultry operators in 2012 – the most recent year available -- spread about three times more manure on their fields than their crops needed. About 60 percent of the manure was spread on land that already had “excessive” phosphorus levels, increasing the risk of polluted runoff.
Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, described the phosphorus problem during an interview earlier this year.
“We have a lot of poultry manure in small areas,” Boesch said. “And disposing all of that (manure) on fields results in the over-application of phosphorus, because the poultry manure is relatively rich in phosphorus to the nitrogen that the plants require. So if we put on enough manure to satisfy their nitrogen requirements, we are putting on far too much phosphorus. That builds up in the fields and then leaks out into the environment.”
Governor Elect Hogan criticized the new manure rules as “midnight-hour regulations” by the outgoing administration. But actually, the rules were first promised by O’Malley in 2010. Then, over the next four years, the proposed regulations were introduced, withdrawn, and twice delayed in 2013 to allow input from farmers and an economic impact analysis.
The analysis by Salisbury University last month found that the cost of the regulations would be about $22 million. But the economic benefits would be nearly five times higher -- $100 million – when the positive effects of cleaner water and a restored Chesapeake Bay are taken into account.
State Senator Paul Pinsky, a Democrat and co-chair of the Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review Committee that reviews regulations, said that the proposed phosphorus rules should move forward.
Pinsky said he would consider introducing legislation in the upcoming session – after consulting with his colleagues -- that might force the state to adopt the manure control regulations as law, if Governor Hogan tries to throw them out.
“While farmers say (the regulations) might cut into some of their profit margin, what about the people who promote tourism?” Pinsky said. “Or people who sell boats, or have docks? Or the watermen, who -- if we let this go unchecked -- will be out of jobs? So this has economic implications beyond just the agricultural community.”
The General Assembly session starts on January 14. The big question for the future of the Chesapeake Bay will be whether the elected leaders of Maryland will make have the long-term vision to stand up for pollution regulations that scientists -- and the poultry industry’s own records -- indicate are necessary, but which do require investment and sacrifice for the common good.