BERLIN — Local environmentalists will be keeping a watchful eye on the 2016 legislative session, which kicked off this week in Annapolis.
While the 90-day session will inevitably take a little bit of time to heat up and get moving, all of the shore’s different industries and interest groups remain positive at the beginning because, in their purview, anything is possible.
“We are always hopeful at the beginning of a legislative session,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips, “but while we are optimistic we know that this administration is very pro-business and may lean toward deregulation of many of our environmental initiatives.”
Phillips says she will be closely monitoring the conversation surrounding the Poultry Litter Management Act (PLMA), which will be introduced again this session after a similarly structured bill that was named the Bay Tax Equity Act, or the “Chicken Tax” by opponents, crashed and burned last session.
The PLMA bill, which will be co-sponsored by Senator Rich Madaleno of Montgomery County, Senator Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore and state Delegate Clarence Lam, M.D., of Howard and Baltimore counties, aims to hold the poultry companies responsible for the cost of trucking excess poultry waste to fields that are not already overloaded with manure, or to alternative energy or recycling facilities outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Phillips says if the bill were to pass it would take the burden off taxpayers and farmers whom she says, currently foots the bill for the removal of the hundreds of millions of pounds of poultry litter created by the approximated 300 million chickens that are raised annually on the Eastern Shore.
Since 1999, Maryland taxpayers have paid more than $5.6 million to move poultry company’s excess waste off of their contract grower’s farms, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Office of Resource Conservation, and more than $767 million in restoration efforts for the Chesapeake Bay since 2004.
“This bill would require chicken companies to clean up after themselves,” said Phillips. “The integrators would be responsible for the manure their growers create. We know that the poultry companies own the chickens, but this bill would help define who owns and is responsible for the waste.”
The PLMA would give family farmers first dibs on the poultry waste to use as fertilizer for their fields, as long as the fields are not deemed to already be too saturated with phosphorous. The issue of phosphorous saturation on local fields will also begin to be monitored by the first phase of the controversial Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT), which passed last session and took effect last June.
Land that is deemed to have a “fertility index value” of 500 or more will no longer be allowed to have manure spread onto the fields as a fertilizer, according to the PMT, and at least 21% of Eastern Shore farms will likely fall into this category.
Yet, while Phillips and other environmental advocates support the PLMA bill, she realizes that it takes time for something like this to gain the support it needs to become a law.
“Legislation like this is never a one year thing,” she said. “To get arsenic out of poultry feed it took us four attempts. This year, I think the bill was written up with much clearer parameters and it’s my hope that we at least get it to the hearing level and with a little luck, maybe it will be debated on the floor.”
Renewable energy is also expected to be a big talking point as the state looks to drive down carbon dioxide pollution by requiring the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about 30 percent by 2030. Companion legislation would direct $40 million to community colleges to educate as many as 2,000 state residents, particularly women and minorities, in renewable and clean jobs like solar.
“It’s going to be a big year for climate and clean energy,” said Chesapeake Climate Action Network Executive Director Mike Tidwell.
Tidwell stresses that the $40 million would not fall on taxpayers or rate payers, but rather by an agreement between the state Public Service Commission and Dominion Energy as part of the approval of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export facility in Lusby. The power company has agreed to pay $8 million annually into a fund managed by the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) for five years, and that money must be used for renewable clean energy purposes.
Some environmentalists believe the support could be there to pass a plastic bag ban. Opponents of the bill say banning plastic bags would be an unnecessary intrusion by government into business and would hurt low income communities.
The bill, co-sponsored by Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore County) and Senator Victor Ramirez (D-Montgomery County), would have the support of Assateague Coastal Trust.
“I would love to see a plastic bag ban,” she said. “I pick so many of them out of our local waterways it’s ridiculous. I hope our local legislators reconsider the Styrofoam ban as well.”