Chesapeake Bay Advocates Oppose Delay for Poultry Pollution Rules

MD Gov. Hogan’s Administration Considering a One Year Delay for Phosphorus Regulations

Annapolis, Md. – Maryland Governor Hogan’s administration is considering a delay in poultry manure regulations meant to stop the chronic over-application of chicken litter to farm fields and reduce phosphorus pollution runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Phosphorus Management Tool Advisory Committee today debated a one-year delay in implementation of restrictions on manure application for many farms after receiving an analysis from a Salisbury University professor, Dr. Memo Diriker, who argued that the state and farmers are not yet ready for the change. The MDA committee will vote on a recommendation on December 13, and then MDA Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder will make a final decision on the delay by Dec. 31.

Clean water advocates object strongly to the delay, which – if approved — would be the fourth time Maryland has shifted back 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.

“This delay would be a serious setback in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, and we urge Governor Hogan to reject the proposal,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, part of a coalition of several clean water organizations protesting the postponement.  “It couldn’t come at a worse time, when Maryland and all the other bay states are behind in their pollution reduction efforts.”

If the delay is approved, the decision would mean that about 210,000 acres of farmland (about 19 percent of the state’s total) that is already saturated with moderately high levels of phosphorus would not face science-based restrictions on the application of more manure on July 1, 2022, as planned in regulations approved in 2015. Instead, these farms would have until July 1, 2023, to comply with the limits.

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.”

“More delay and loopholes are the last things we need for a healthy Bay,” said Courtney Bernhardt, Research Director at the Environmental Integrity Project. “These critically-important manure management rules were designed with a lot of additional time and flexibility for farmers already built in.”

Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, said: “Our rivers and bays on the Lower Eastern Shore are suffering from nutrient pollution caused by decades of manure application to our farm fields. The PMT regulations were passed in 2015 to cure this so to extend the already generous implementation deadline is counter to our clean water goals.”

Matthew Shudtz, Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform, said: “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. There are costs that come with this delay, and the Hogan administration seems to be ignoring everyone downstream who will be paying them. I’m sure the irony of this isn’t lost on Governor Wolf and his team in Pennsylvania.”

Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper with ShoreRivers, said: “We cannot afford any more delays in better managing agricultural nutrient pollution on the Eastern Shore. We need best-effort implementation of the PMT and that means MDA and every part of the industry needs to work to overcome these shortfalls and end the damage that manure continues to inflict on our local rivers.”

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.

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

Soil testing showed that these farms, 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. These highly saturated farms cover 17,771 acres, which is about 2 percent of the state’s total farmland.

A second category of farms with moderately high levels of phosphorus in the soil and an FIV rating of 150 to 499 was given 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 159,946 (or 76 percent) of those acres on the Eastern Shore.

The MDA’s Phosphorus Management Tool Advisory Committee on Dec. 13 will vote on whether this second category should be given an additional year to comply with the deadline. Then the MDA Secretary must make a decision on a delay by Dec. 31, according to the terms of the 2015 regulations.

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: Manure management rules for the poultry industry have 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.

Now the Hogan Administration is considering whether to add this additional year of delay.

Salisbury University Analysis:

During the meeting of the MDA committee , Dr. Memo Diriker of Salisbury University presented an analysis that said the state’s manure transportation program does not have enough funding, trucks, or truck drivers to move the excess manure from farms that are currently overloaded with phosphorus to fields elsewhere with lower levels of the nutrient.

Dr. Diriker also said farmers may also want additional money to pay for chemical nitrogen fertilizer to replace the free or low-cost poultry manure they have been spreading for years.

“Are we ready for the transition in one year? No,” Dr. Diriker told the MDA committee.  “If we don’t do anything, we won’t be ready.”

Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said: “They have had four years already, and MDA has done nothing to prepare. MDA simply isn’t doing its job.”

A motion by the committee today to immediately recommend the one year delay failed, with three votes in favor and five against, because many members wanted more time to discuss the option. The committee then voted to cast a final vote on the question on Friday, Dec. 13. That second vote will allow further deliberations over what the state would have to do to prepare for the implementation of the regulations.

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 Waterkeeper 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 is a leading voice for clean rivers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and has a mission to protect and restore those rivers using science-based advocacy, restoration and education.

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
Brian Gumm, Center for Progressive Reform (202) 747-0698 x 4 or bgumm@progressivereform.org
Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastal Trust, (443) 235-2014 or coastkeeper@actforbays.org
Matt Pluta, ShoreRivers, 443-385-0511 x 203 or mpluta@shorerivers.org