Bay Journal

Phosphorus, again

The race is on to keep up with the regulations around this top Chesapeake Bay pollutant

  • By Rona Kobell on March 11, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.

Queue up the Pete Kleinman song. In Maryland, phosphorus is driving us crazy this year.  Keeping up with all of its permutations is starting to be a full-time job.

Officials have introduced, then pulled back regulations that would lessen phosphorus getting into our waterways and polluting the Chesapeake Bay. Legislators have introduced, and then pulled back, bills that would delay such regulations. Now, an Eastern Shore legislator has put language in a budget amendment that would not allow the Maryland Department of Agriculture to make any changes regarding phosphorus without first conducting an economic impact analysis on the affected farmers. MDA Secretary Buddy Hance had promised to do that anyway, but now it's in writing in an amendment that should be voted on later this week.

Why the fuss?

Phosphorus is part of the one-two polluting punch of manure - the other piece is nitrogen. Farmers apply manure to their fields because it's free, organic, and an excellent fertilizer. But they apply it based on the nitrogen needs of the crop, and the phosphorus comes along for the ride. That's a problem.Phosphorus will run off the soil, or it will travel through sub-surface groundwater into streams. It moves slowly, and the only way to stop it from running off is to immediately stop putting it on and let the plants draw down the phosphorus that's already there.

But the problem is two-fold: One, if farmers stop using manure, they have to buy commercial, petroleum-based fertilizer, which is expensive; two, if they don't accept the manure, it needs to go somewhere, and the people cleaning out the poultry houses have to be able to take it there. Together, those two factors have made it difficult to solve this problem.

But researchers at the University of Maryland have tried nonetheless, for the past decade, to come up with an answer. They have refined what is called the phosphorus management tool. This tool is an index that looks at a variety of factors - soil tests, topography, proximity to waterways - and gives the soil a score. Above a fertility value of 150, farmers should not apply any more phosphorus. Below it, and they can.

In the past, farmers with a high score could continue to apply phosphorus if they put in best management practices, such as cover crops and buffers. But the new tool was to discourage that.

It didn't take long for farmers to realize these changes could be major. University of Maryland's research indicated that close to half the farmland on the Eastern Shore had too much phosphorus. Before the regulations were even close to being implemented, the Farm Bureau reported that chicken manure haulers were being turned away from their usual customers because no one wanted this once-valuable commodity.

The department has been talking about implementing these changes since 2011, largely because the Chesapeake Bay's pollution diet demands these reductions if Maryland is to be in compliance. It was waiting for the research tool to be finished before they began introducing the new regulations.

First, Maryland tried to put the regulations through on an emergency basis, but pulled back after protests from farmers. Then officials embarked on a series of meetings with farmers and attempted to go through the regular law-making procedure, which is slower. They pulled back on that, too. By last month, Hance was promising there would be a phosphorus regulation in place at some point, but was not able to give a timetable. He had also promised his department would do an economic analysis before putting in the restrictions.

Not content to take Hance's word for it, Del. Norm Conway and Sen. Jim Mathias - both of the Eastern Shore - introduced legislation to delay implementing the phosphorus restrictions until the department completed its economic analysis. When those bills were going nowhere, Mathias introduced the language in the budget amendment that the phosphorus restrictions were not to proceed without the study.

(Conway is no stranger to such amendments - he was the senator who put in the amendment to the budget a couple of years ago that said taxpayers should foot the bill for legal costs incurred by a farmer accused of polluting a tributary of the Pocomoke River.)

According to The Sun, Matthias said issuing new phosphorus rules "doesn't have to be done overnight." Environmentalists would say this night has been a long one, indeed. A new phosphorus index has been in discussions for almost a decade. And as of now, it's impossible to say when the regulations will become the law.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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