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Maryland drops policy on manure runoff in bay

(Sunday, June 15, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Anita Huslin, Washington Post, 06/14/03: Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that the state would abandon rules that hold such poultry giants as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms Inc. accountable for pollution caused by chicken waste flushing into the Chesapeake Bay.

Reversing an effort by the previous administration to force the companies to deal with the ecological damage that comes from their industry, Ehrlich said he would look for voluntary measures or economic incentives to stanch the flow of millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous into the bay and the rivers and streams that feed it.

"I plan to develop innovative solutions that clean up the Chesapeake Bay while allowing chicken processors and farmers to earn a living without excessive government intrusion," Ehrlich (R) said in a statement.

His announcement came after a staff member in his Department of the Environment ruled that the state had overstepped its authority in tying poultry processors' permits to the practices of the farmers growing their chickens. Maryland farmers still must meet requirements to deal with the chicken waste in an environmentally safe fashion.

Across the Delmarva Peninsula, nearly 1 billion chickens are raised by farmers who are contracted by poultry corporations. The corporations deliver the birds or eggs to growers, provide the feed and collect the animals for slaughter.

But they leave the farmers with the tons of manure produced by the birds. Though farmers historically have used the waste -- a combination of litter and dung -- as fertilizer, it has become an increasing liability, and poultry companies have disavowed responsibility for it.

As the number of birds raised on the Eastern Shore has surpassed the capacity of the cropland to absorb their manure, the waste has often washed into waterways, fueling algae blooms that choke the water of oxygen and light.

In 1997, scientists linked farm runoff to an outbreak of toxic algae that was blamed for killing hundreds of thousands of fish on the Eastern Shore. Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) shut down parts of three rivers and began a campaign in the legislature to limit agricultural use of chicken manure as fertilizer.

As part of that effort, Glendening sought to have Maryland become the first state to hold poultry processors responsible for overseeing disposal of the birds' waste. Virginia enacted similar legislation in 1999.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called livestock pollution the greatest threat to American waterways, and in the late 1990s, it began regulating large livestock farms as factories. The Bush administration rolled back those efforts in January.

The poultry industry has said that states, including Maryland, do not have the authority to link their permits to the operations of other businesses, namely the growers.

"If the state could say to the chicken companies, 'Your environmental permits are tied to the practices of businesses that supply you,' what would be next?" said William Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., an industry group. "Service stations responsible for what oil companies do at their refineries? Newspapers being responsible for how ink manufacturers handle their waste products?

"It just could've been a real dangerous precedent, and fortunately, reason has prevailed."

The industry appealed the permitting process to an administrative law judge, who sided with the processors. Ultimately, the decision rested with the Department of the Environment and Ehrlich.

Environmentalists said they were not surprised by the administration's decision, particularly because Ehrlich criticized the so-called co-permitting requirements and other restrictions on chicken farmers when he was running for governor.

Poultry industry interests contributed about $150,000 to Ehrlich's campaign, according to an analysis conducted for The Washington Post by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Ehrlich administration's decision against using permits to manage manure does not relieve the state of its responsibility to come up with alternative ways to reduce pollution.

"We want to see something with timetables and measurable goals in which they're going to do this," Pierno said. "We still believe the companies need to take responsibility for this waste product and not leave the small farmers and growers out there on their own."

Ehrlich said he would seek other ways to clean up the Chesapeake Bay "without government intrusion." He added that "exhaustive, time consuming litigation does not help our cause."

Administration officials said the state Department of Agriculture would host a summit June 23 to consider the problems of manure management and the issues particular to chicken farmers. Farmers and environmentalists will be invited, they said.

Under Glendening's permitting system, the poultry companies would have had to submit plans for management of manure produced at farms they own and verify that contract growers have such plans.

The corporations also would have had to help growers develop those plans if they requested assistance and maintain records on the number of chickens each farmer raises, the amount of litter they generate and disposal options for farmers.

The permitting system offered something of a compromise to the poultry companies by not holding them liable for fines if the farmers failed to properly handle the chicken waste. If growers failed to properly dispose of chicken waste, the companies would have had to stop supplying them with new birds to raise until the problems were corrected.