MD lawmakers introduce phosphorus rules bills in both chambers
Environmentalists looking for other ways to keep phosphorus from manure out of water
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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. pulled the state’s proposed phosphorus regulations just hours after he was inaugurated, but that doesn’t mean the state’s push to limit phosphorus is dead.
Maryland Sen. Paul Pinsky has introduced a bill in the state Senate that mirrors the regulations former Gov. Martin O’Malley had proposed. Those regulations were about to be printed in the Maryland Register when Hogan pulled them. Del. Steve Lafferty has introduced a companion bill in the House. Environmentalists are supporting both measures.
In the Senate, the majority of the members of the Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee have signed on as sponsors of the bill, including the committee’s chairwoman, Joan Carter Conway. Ian Ullman, Pinsky’s chief of staff, said Pinsky already had the bill drafted when Hogan pulled the regulation.
“We’ve been talking about this for many years. We’ve had multiple iterations,” Ullman said. “Sen. Pinsky thinks it’s long past time to implement this, and that we just could not wait any longer.”
Hogan has not announced his intentions for the phosphorus management tool. Julie Oberg, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the new secretary wasn’t ready to discuss the next steps yet.
Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, said that the governor wanted to do a “comprehensive review” and seek public comment on all pending regulations.
“We’re holding the PMT regulations, which were slated for publication on Jan. 23, to give them the attention they deserve,” Montgomery wrote in an e-mail to the Bay Journal.
Ullman said that whether the regulations come out of legislation or come straight from the governor’s office will not matter to the farmers who generate the excess manure and need to figure out what to do with it. The phosphorus regulations will function the same either way, he said.
The proposed regulations had been through a series of public hearings and periods for public comment over the last three years as they were being developed.
But even with so much time and public discussion, the person who was the architect of the phosphorus tool thought the process was rushed. Josh McGrath, the former University of Maryland scientist who was the architect of the phosphorus tool, said he was always advocating for more time to fine-tune it.
“My recommendation the whole time was, give us time to calibrate and validate against field-proven models,” he said after Hogan pulled the regulations. “I had to turn over what I considered a draft.”
Buddy Hance, who was Maryland’s agricultural secretary for eight years under Martin O’Malley, said he also felt the process seemed rushed.
“I was always concerned that the PMT was going to have such a significant effect on agriculture and that we were moving a little fast,” he said. “I don’t think most people are at a stage where they’re questioning the science. It’s what you do about the impacts.”
The economic impacts, Hance said, were a primary concern to him and to Eastern Shore politicians. Del. Norm Conway and Sen. Jim Mathias, both Democrats, tried to block the PMT from becoming regulation during the 2014 legislative session. When their bill failed, they put language in the budget to mandate an economic study. The author of that study was Memo Diriker, a professor with the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. But Diriker, too, felt rushed, and admitted the job was more complicated than he anticipated, leading him to complete it after Hogan was elected.
McGrath’s research established that at least half of the soils on the Eastern Shore are saturated with phosphorus and no more should be applied. The phosphorus has come from decades of farmers applying chicken manure. When soils are saturated with phosphorus, any excess either runs off the land with rain or snowmelt, or dissolves and seeps into the groundwater where it can travel to waterways. Farmers complained that, while the regulations moved forward, solutions for the excess manure stalled. The state issued a contract for a manure-to-energy plant, but it hasn’t been permitted yet. And the state was working on communal manure-storage, but the facilities were slow to materialize.
Environmentalists, though, were disappointed. Research from the Environmental Integrity Group, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group started by former EPA lawyers, shows that the watershed’s most phosphorus-laden rivers are those on the Delmarva Peninsula where the farmers are growing the most chickens.
The Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, which represents more than a dozen environmental organizations, said that the new governor “has turned his back on clean water and sound science.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said that Hogan “rolled back 10 years of progress.” Many government officials involved in pushing through the legislation expressed surprise and disappointment that it had been pulled.
Some also expressed hope that the new governor, once he had more information, would reconsider the decision.
“The soils are saturated on the Eastern Shore, and where they are saturated, we need to change our practices,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “The PMT was the best effort to make that change. The effort was based on a decade of science and evolved over three years of negotiation. I’m disappointed, but I’m hopeful that it is not in fact derailed, but is instead moving forward.”
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