Farmers say state is piling on with new manure regulations -- Gazette.Net


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Farmers, wastewater managers and environmentalists have found common ground — they share anger about proposed state manure and fertilizer management regulations that could be approved as early as next month.

The regulations were designed “to achieve consistency in the way all nutrients are managed and help Maryland meet nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals” for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which drafted the legislation.

The goals are part of a Watershed Improvement Plan required of states in the Bay's watershed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make more progress in a three-decades-old effort to reduce Bay pollution.

But the farmers say too much of the cleanup burden is falling on them — and at a huge financial cost.

And wastewater managers say they cannot meet the storage requirements expected of them. Hundreds of thousands of tons of treated sewage sludge would have to be stored for almost half a year, they say.

Finally, at least some environmentalists are unhappy — but for a different reason. They say the requirements don't go far enough, fast enough to clean and protect the Bay.

At a meeting Monday of about 130 farmers and others at the Talbot Community Center in Easton, Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Earl “Buddy” Hance complimented Maryland farmers for implementing best management practices through the years and meeting almost 70 percent of the goal in the proposed regulations.

Among the farmers' voluntary efforts were planting cover crops, including 429,000 acres of them in 2011, and working with the state to transport almost half of the manure out of the Bay watershed, according to MDA.

But, Hance warned, that means “the low-hanging fruit” has been picked, and that “makes the goal harder to reach.”

The public meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was the third of four held around the state on the proposed regulations between July 10 and July 25.

Restricting fertilizer

Under the proposed regulations, beginning in 2014, the spreading of fertilizer within 35 feet of surface water and spraying or injecting fertilizers within 10 feet of surface water would be prohibited.

Vegetated buffers would be designed to absorb runoff and protect waterways from nutrient pollution.

A 10-foot buffer zone also would apply to fertilizing hayfields. A draft of the proposal last year would have banned pasturing livestock within 10 feet of streams and surface water.

But that raised the ire of livestock farmers and horse owners who complained that the regulations, which would reduce pastures and require much additional fencing, could choke them out of existence.

Although the new proposal retains the waterside grazing ban, it allows an exemption if the local soil conservation district agrees that a farmer can employ other management practices — such as constructed stream crossings, water troughs and pasture management — to equal effect.

MDA spokeswoman Julie Oberg said research has shown that livestock will use a stream crossing if it is available, and MDA is willing to subsidize construction through cost-share programs.

Cost-share programs also could be tapped to build storage facilities and help farmers pay for some other costs associated with the regulations.

“We understand the concern that there are associated costs that are impactful,” Hance told The Gazette in an interview Wednesday.

Under the regulations, after July 1, 2016, Eastern Shore farmers would be prohibited from applying fertilizers between Nov. 1 and March 1, and farmers west of the Bay and Susquehanna River would be prohibited from applying fertilizers between Nov. 15 and March 1.

The reason is that pollutants are reduced if there is a crop to absorb them, said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary for resource conservation with MDA.

Farmers who fertilize with organic, rather than chemical, nutrients in the fall also would be required to plant cover crops as soon as possible, and no later than Nov. 15. Beginning in 2016, Eastern Shore farmers would have to plant the cover crops by Nov. 5.

“We know you can't farm by the clock, and the department has always made allowances for weather,” Hance said. “We have some history for being reasonable about deadlines and dates.”

But the regulations would remain after the current agriculture department's leadership departs, said Pat Langenfelder of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

“What happens when officials at MDA can't be relied on to be reasonable?” Langenfelder said.

Blowback on regulations

Too much is being “laid on the farmer” when most pollution comes from elsewhere, said Sveinn Storm of Centreville, a community and environmental activist and farmer who uses natural and organic methods.

Kent County dairy farmer Tom Mason agreed.

“My son and I just built a new facility with all the best equipment, [but] these regulations make me wonder if Maryland was the place to expand,” Mason said.

Mason said he still is waiting on the final cost-share payment for a manure storage facility that was completed three months ago.

The state also should account for wildlife that drink, graze — and defecate — around streams, Mason said.

“Our enemy is not a foreign state but our own,” Mason said.

David Wood, who raises poultry for Perdue and grows about 725 acres of wheat, barley, corn and soybeans around Denton, and others pointed to homeowners as a big part of the problem.

They said more efforts need to be made to get homeowners to refrain from mowing around ditches, which might make their property look nice but contributes to pollutants running into streams and the Bay.

And, noted Gary Miller of Harford County, “Boats outnumber farmers. I'd like to see a moratorium on pleasure boat[s]. See how that flies in Annapolis.”

More restrictions on the use of animal manure on crops increase the chance that Maryland farmers will move toward commercially produced fertilizers and away from locally available manure, poultry grower David Brown warned.

The regulations could deter farmers from using chicken manure altogether, Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dist. 37) of Cambridge said at the Easton gathering.

Colburn said MDA should work with soil conservation districts to develop site-specific plans instead, and that he has written to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) urging him to withdraw the plan, which he said could hurt Maryland's economy.

Dels. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R-Dist. 37B) of Cambridge and Charles J. Otto (R-Dist. 38A) of Princess Anne said they also object to the proposals and would prefer to let the decisions be made locally and by farmers.

“I, too, agree that one size does not fit all” and that farmers know better than anybody what's on their land, Eckardt said.

Waste pilesHundreds of thousands of tons of “biosolids” — treated sewage sludge that can be used as fertilizer — would have to be held for five-and-a-half months before it could be spread on fields in Maryland under the proposal, because the ban on applying fertilizer in winter applies to biosolids as well, according to wastewater managers.

And “it's impossible to get storage built by 2016,” as proposed, Noelle Anuskiewicz, program manager for wastewater operations in Anne Arundel County, told MDA officials at the Easton meeting.

That's one of several reasons wastewater agencies across the state oppose the changes, she said.

When the window for spreading biosolids reopens each spring, Anne Arundel's wastewater operations would have to move 1,254 trucks filled with sewer biosolids “through someone's neighborhood” in a month or two, Anuskiewicz said.

But there is no room at Anne Arundel's seven wastewater treatment plants to store the biosolids, and finding land on which to store them would not be easy, given the expense, neighborhood opposition and difficulty getting permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment, she said.

In a letter to the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which is charged with considering and making recommendations on regulations, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission General Manager Jerry N. Johnson also said the 2016 deadline would not allow sewer utilities time to build storage.

Small wastewater plants and small livestock operations would have until 2020 to comply with regulations requiring more storage.

The WSSC, which provides water and sewer service to 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, does not store biosolids now, according to spokesman Jim Neustadt.

But the WSSC estimated that, under the proposed regulations, it would have to store about 125,000 tons of treated sludge during the period when spreading organic fertilizer is banned, and that doing so could cost an extra $90 million.

There's also the potential that bordering states struggling to meet federal mandates to clean the Bay “could follow suit with similar regulations,” Johnson wrote in his letter to the committee.

With half of Maryland's sewage sludge currently shipped out of state, potential regulation changes in other states could lead to even more biosolids being held for application within Maryland, he said.

Minority-owned trucking firms that rely on relatively small fleets haul most WSSC biosolids now, but those companies could lose business because they probably do not have enough trucks to meet a demand to haul the sludge in a shorter term, Johnson said.

Johnson also cast doubt on whether MDA has sufficient scientific basis for the changes and said that without the data on nutrient loss, the costs and benefits of making the proposed changes cannot be measured.

In The Gazette interview, Hance said the state has relied on studies by the University of Maryland, the National Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville and the Chesapeake Bay Program, and that “our goal is to use all the science available.”

State Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of College Park said Thursday that he believes the AELR committee, of which he is co-chairman, will start polling members next week to prepare for a vote on the regulations.

“Most folks from urban and suburban areas are for it,” Pinsky said, noting that the committee recently voted to support regulations requiring wastewater plants to use the best available nutrient removal technology.

Also, a poll released this week by OpinionWorks shows that support is strong, including on the Eastern Shore, for Maryland to stop the disposal of manure on farm fields in the fall and winter.

Environmentalists: Get tougher

Still, Maryland environmental groups say the fertilizer regulations, published in the Maryland Register on June 29, do not go far enough.

Earlier this month, 20 groups based in Maryland or the Chesapeake region called for changes that they said in a position statement “are essential if Maryland is to meet its commitments to pollution reduction and Bay restoration.”

Among them, they want the ban on applying fertilizer during winter to begin in 2014 instead of 2016 and for it to take effect Nov. 1 statewide.

And, they want more restrictions on storing manure in fields.

They also favor requiring setbacks from water to include ditches and to make setbacks wider to be consistent with regulations set by MDE, such as 100-foot buffers in environmentally critical areas.

“I'm proud of our relationships working with farmers,” said J. David Foster, one of several Riverkeepers who support stricter measures. “At the same time, realize strict reliance on only voluntary programs won't get the job done,” Foster said at the Easton meeting. Riverkeepers is an organization that works to restore clean water and stop pollution.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman said in an interview Thursday that he believes complaints from farmers and wastewater managers are “artful arguments designed to forestall the regulations at hand.”

And Josh Tulkin, Maryland director for the Sierra Club, said Thursday that ambitious goals are important.

“We think the new regulations are common sense and reasonable,” Tulkin said.

MDA is accepting comments through Aug. 13.

mhyslop@gazette.net