County May Seek Visit With Ag Officials Over PMT

SNOW HILL — Feeling that there are many more questions than answers on the issue of new phosphorus management regulations, the Worcester County Commission is considering requesting a face-to-face meeting with the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA).
The idea of legal action to delay or halt the ponderous regulations was also bandied about, though none of the commissioners felt optimistic about taking the state to court.
With the last in a series of MDA hearings concluding with unfavorable results, Bob Mitchell, director of Environmental Studies for the county, has suggested that the commission request MDA Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance visit Worcester for a more intimate question-and-answer session.
“I offer that only as the only thing that could be done at this point to get a warm and fuzzy and to have a firing squad from the local elected officials on the lower shore,” said Mitchell.
Having attended two of the MDA meetings, Mitchell added that the state’s information and argument behind a proposed Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT) “was not very well received by the agricultural community, to say the least.”
Every positive point that MDA proposed, such as an outreach campaign in Fiscal Year 2014 and regular stakeholder meetings, Mitchell found issues with. With the outreach campaign, he questioned whether the state would play referee with environmental groups and fact-check their reports and press releases on the issue. With the stakeholder meetings, one of Mitchell’s biggest concerns is how a “stakeholder” will be defined, since some of those at the MDA meetings calling themselves stakeholders made tenuous claims, in his opinion.
“We were even doubting stakeholders, who was a stakeholder and who had the right to be at the meeting,” said Mitchell, who listed a host of other problems he has with MDA’s information efforts so far.
Also attending the MDA meetings was Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who is a poultry farmer. Shockley has been adamant since the beginning that the new PMT endangers the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore by making it much more difficult for chicken manure to be used as fertilizer. His apprehension has only grown during the MDA information campaign when he claims the state has shown a lot of disrespect to farmers.
“You were treated like you didn’t know anything, you were dumb as the devil and just go home and just shut up,” he said. “That’s exactly how they treated me.”
One area Shockley took some comfort with has been in the united front presented by Eastern Shore representatives at the state level.
“So far the Eastern Shore delegation has been solid. Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They realize what’s at stake.”
Shockley wishes that the poultry industry was as united, but admitted that there are a few questionable stakeholders, who seem willing to make agreements with MDA without reaching a consensus.
Commissioner Judy Boggs asked if it might be possible to involve Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler.
“I see this issue taking on a life of its own and they haven’t done anything they’re supposed to,” she said. “Are we involving the attorney general here? Is there a legal aspect of it that we can say, ‘hey, this has to stop until this, this, this and this is done?’”
Chances are slim that the attorney general would put any kind of stop order on the PMT, according to county attorney Sonny Bloxom.
“I would doubt that the AG’s office would do anything. In fact, if anything, they would find a loophole that would be favorable to the state,” said Bloxom. “[Gansler] is running for governor and he’s in bed with environmental issues.”
But the continued support of state delegates has made Shockley optimistic that Annapolis might take the Eastern Shore’s worries to heart.
“I’m waiting for them to realize this isn’t the line in the sand, this is the blood in the sand and it’s the blood of the family farmer,” he said.
Shockley also criticized the science behind the PMT and the weak defense that he said the state has given so far.
Senator Jim Mathias (D-38B) made a similar charge and took MDA to task for not having University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources representatives at hand for earlier public meetings to answer questions.
“When presenting legislation or regulation that will affect Maryland citizens and its industries,” he wrote in a letter, “we have a moral responsibility for transparency, availability and access to information for our citizens for the basis of these proposals.”
Mathias added that he was “embarrassed” by the university’s absence.
Representatives were available at this week’s session in Easton, though Shockley wasn’t impressed with the way they and MDA tried to explain the new regulations.
“They were trying to see who could throw each other under the bus the fastest and do the most damage,” he said.
The commission will likely request a visit from Hance, according to Shockley.