Bay Cleanup Activists Praise Vote to Move Ahead with Poultry Manure Pollution Rules

MDA Committee Votes Against Proposed Delay for “Phosphorus Management Tool” Sought by Farmers

Annapolis, Md. – A Maryland advisory committee voted today to recommend that Governor Hogan’s Administration move ahead with poultry manure regulations meant to stop the over-application of chicken litter to farm fields and reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Phosphorus Management Tool Advisory Committee today voted 12-5 against a proposed one-year delay in restrictions on manure application for about 210,000 acres of farmland across the state that had been sought by some farmers. Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder must now make a final decision by Dec. 31.

Clean water advocates praised the recommendation not to delay the rules, which would have marked the fourth time that Maryland has punted the deadlines for the important pollution control rules. The EPA Chesapeake Bay Program has concluded that agricultural runoff is the largest single source of pollution in the Bay.

“We’re pleased that the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s committee has recognized that a delay is unreasonable, because manure management rules for the poultry industry have been delayed for years,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Industrial chicken operations have been allowed to be built on the Eastern Shore while we still do not have a plan for the excess manure. This is a danger to the Chesapeake Bay and our local waterways and communities.”

The recommendation means that about 19 percent of the state’s farmland, much of it on the Eastern Shore, that is already saturated with moderately high levels of phosphorus, will face science-based restrictions on the application of more manure on July 1, 2022, as planned in regulations approved in 2015. An additional year of delay was rejected by the advisory committee.

Maryland is under increasing time pressure and behind schedule to meet pollution reduction targets by 2025 as part of a regional cleanup plan led by EPA called the Bay “Total Maximum Daily Load.”

“With an important Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline bearing down on Maryland, it would have been irresponsible to delay – yet again– these critical pollution control regulations,” said Courtney Bernhardt, Research Director at the Environmental Integrity Project.   “There is no evidence that more stalling by the Maryland Department of Agriculture would have solved the main issue, which is that we have millions of tons more poultry manure than we need.”

Matthew Shudtz, Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform, said: “This is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go before Maryland’s Eastern Shore agricultural community is as diverse and sustainable as we need it to be.”

Jeff Horstman, Executive Director of ShoreRivers, a clean water advocacy group based on the Eastern Shore, said: “I am pleased to see, despite inadequate preparations from MDA, that the agricultural community is working together with the environmental community to continue with the scheduled phase-in of the PMT. This is a necessary step as every river on the Eastern Shore is currently polluted from agricultural runoff and we need to keep improving.”

Water quality monitoring on the Eastern Shore has shown that tributaries to the Choptank, Wicomoco, Pocomoke, and Chester Rivers have such high levels of phosphorus pollution that the state and EPA have declared them as officially “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act, meaning they need cleanup plans.

The Hogan administration imposed the Phosphorus Management Tool (or PMT) regulations in 2015.  Immediately that year, a small subset of farms with the very highest levels of phosphorus in their soil faced an immediate prohibition on applying more manure.

The state banned more manure application on these farms because soil testing showed that these fields (covering 17,771 acres, which is about 2 percent of the state’s total farmland, mostly in Somerset and Wicomico counties) have what the state calls a “fertility index value” or FIV (a measurement of phosphorus levels) of more than 500.  In plain English, soil that exceeds that index is already saturated with phosphorus, which makes it highly likely that any additional amounts added by spreading poultry litter will run off of into Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

Maryland officials gave a second category of farms with moderately high levels of phosphorus in the soil (as determined by an FIV rating of 150 to 499) until July 1, 2022, to face restriction on how much manure they can apply to their land.  This category covers 210,023 acres statewide, with about 160,000 (or 76 percent of the land) on the Eastern Shore.

The MDA’s Phosphorus Management Tool Advisory Committee today recommended that that the state not give this category of farms an additional year to comply with the deadline, as some famers had advocated.

A third category of farms, with low levels of phosphorus in the soil (less than 150 FIV), represents about 79 percent of Maryland farm acres and faces no ban or restrictions  on application of poultry manure.

For an MDA fact sheet on the manure regulations click here; and for state data on farm phosphorus levels, click here.

Background: Although Maryland is now moving ahead with the manure management rules, restrictions on manure application for the poultry industry had been delayed for decades in Maryland.  Back in 1997, following an outbreak of toxic algae and fish kills on the Eastern Shore, a blue ribbon panel led by former Governor Harry Hughes recommended that Maryland take “immediate” action to halt the over-application of poultry manure to farm fields.

But nothing happened until 2010, when Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration promised EPA that it would create new manure application limits (the PMT) as part of Maryland’s official Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.

The O’Malley Administration published draft manure regulations in January 2013; then withdrew them that August, after farmers complained.  The state then proposed the rules again in October 2013, and withdrew them again a month later.  Finally, in December 2014, just before O’Malley left office, the state published the manure management regulations third time, this time with a gradual phase-in for farmers so that the restrictions would be in place for most farms by 2020.

However, in January 2015, newly elected Governor Larry Hogan withdrew these regulations. His administration compromised with the poultry industry and Democratic lawmakers pushing for strong clean water rules and created a new version of the regulations in April 2015 that allowed at least another two years of delay for most farmers, until July 1, 2022.

The final rule allowed for the possibility of moving the deadline to July 1, 2023, if an evaluation by MDA concluded that the market for manure as farm fertilizer was poor or if farmers did not have adequate transportation systems available to move excess waste off of overloaded farms.

Some farmers had advocated that the Hogan Administration add this additional year of delay. During a meeting of the MDA advisory committee in November, Memo Diriker, a professor in the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University, said the state’s manure transportation program did not have enough funding, trucks, or truck drivers to move the half billion pounds of excess manure produced every year by Maryland’s chickens from farms that are currently overloaded with phosphorus to fields elsewhere.

The MDA advisory committee today recommended against this additional year of delay for the rules, with a final decision to be made by the Maryland Secretary of Agriculture by Dec. 31.

Media contacts: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org

Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake (202) 423-0504 or betsy@waterkeeperschesapeake.org

Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastal Trust, (443) 235-2014 or coastkeeper@actforbays.org

Brian Gumm, Center for Progressive Reform (202) 747-0698 x 4 or bgumm@progressivereform.org

Jeffrey Horstman, ShoreRivers, (443)385-0511 or jhorstman@shorerivers.org

Organizations:

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 17-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake is a coalition of eighteen independent programs working to make the waters of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays swimmable and fishable.

The Center for Progressive Reform is a network of more than 60 Member Scholars with a shared vision of thriving communities and a resilient planet. We drive policy reform with rigorous and accessible legal analysis designed for changemakers.

The Assateague Coastal Trust’s mission is to protect everyone’s right to clean water, and to empower a network of citizen community leaders who share our vision to promote and encourage the protection of the health, productivity, and sustainability of the coastal watershed through advocacy, education and conservation.

ShoreRivers protects and restores Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration, and education.