State Postpones Implementation Of Changes Limiting Phosphorous Loading

SNOW HILL — Polarizing amendments to Maryland’s phosphorus pollution regulations will be supported by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration and submitted for final adoption in the next month but implementation on the changes will be delayed for the time being.
State conservation groups like Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) are praising the amendments but are unhappy with stalling implementation. But the Worcester County Commission and many area farmers believe the new regulations are too hard on agriculture and vow to pushback against the amendments.
The proposed Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) would change the way farmers apply some fertilizers and in what amounts. The overall goal of the tool is to work to limit the amount of phosphorus pollution heading into rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay from fields. Kathy Phillips, executive director of ACT, admitted that the PMT will be tough for some farmers but is a necessary reaction to protect Maryland’s waters.
“Adopting these new regulations will be painful, but the time has come to face the reality that Delmarva cannot sustain a growing poultry, corn and soybean industry without doing significant damage to our waterways,” Phillips said. “The state has already mandated phosphorus control to lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents. The time has passed to bring these same pollution controls to the agricultural industry in this state.”
Other conservation groups agreed with Phillips and underlined the dangers of letting excess phosphorus runoff from fields. Karla Raettig, executive director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters, praised the O’Malley administration and Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) for promising to move forward with the new PMT.
“The administration is responding to the concerns of both the environmental and agricultural communities,” wrote Raettig. “Current research makes it clear that we need to significantly reduce pollution from farm fields, but we also need to help farmers in their efforts to better manage the manure they cannot place on fields.”
While environmental groups may be happy with the direction the state is heading, the Worcester County Commission voted unanimously last week to send a letter to Annapolis asking MDA to slow down so more research can be done.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who is also a poultry farmer, has taken point on the issue for the commission and is aggressively against the changes.
“The Department of Agriculture’s job is to defend agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture’s job is to defend agriculture,” said Shockley. “It is not to put restrictions in place that will hamper or penalize the farmers who are out here trying to make a living.”
With the new regulations, fields that are considered high-risk won’t be able to apply phosphorus rich manure while fields that are considered medium-risk will only be allowed reduced applications. Along with other changes, this represents a huge financial burden to farmers, according to Shockley.
“Farming is a business and if you don’t make money, you go out of business,” he said.
Shockley also remains unsatisfied with the science behind the PMT alterations, noting that the regulations are based on 391 soil samples taken from across the state. It’s too small of a number to base such far-reaching legislation on, he argued.
But the science is sound, according to supporters. And the need for better phosphorus management is something that’s been obvious for years, said Josh Tulkin, executive director for the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added that he is upset that implementation on the regulations will be delayed but glad to see the PMT handled intelligently.
“We are disappointed about the delay. But what is most important is to get this tool right,” he wrote. “We are pleased that the agricultural department will be revising it as we proposed to protect water quality.”
Tulkin added that it is time for “farmers as responsible stewards to embrace” the new regulations and limits on phosphorus.
But Shockley restated his disagreement with the entire process and criticized the way the state has handled PMT discussion so far, including considering it to emergency legislation earlier this month before deciding on the delay.
“I’ve never seen so many people in state government not know that the other person was not doing,” he said.
The commission is expecting an update on the impact of the phosphorous regulations at their meeting next Tuesday. Though he isn’t sure on an exact timeline, Shockley said that the delayed implementation will give farmers a chance to pushback against more regulation and that his constituents, many of whom are involved in agriculture in some way, “are furious” and ready to fight.
“We didn’t win the fight by a long-shot. The fight has yet to be fought,” he said. “I’m not saying that we’re going to win it, but at least now the spotlight got shined on what they were doing.”
However, supporters of the new regulations are also passionate and while they may disagree with the delay, they expect the changes sooner rather than later.
“Phosphorus loadings from farm fields are a problem for waterways like Newport Bay and the St. Martin River, and Chincoteague Bay. They continue to decline in overall health as result,” said Phillips. “The agricultural community has been aware of the Phosphorus Management Tool and its likely impacts since 2010 when it was clearly identified in the state WIP. Their comments on it last February reflected this recognition. We are frustrated that Maryland will now be four years late on implementation.”