Farmers were still simmering about regulations to keep fertilizer out of waterways when the state asked the Maryland Farm Bureau to join a panel tackling yet another perceived environmental threat: giant hog and poultry farms.

The farmers balked.

And the Glendening administration blinked.

The Farm Bureau, Maryland’s largest farmer organization, refused in early December to join the panel, drawing a line against what its leaders regarded as an alliance between environmentalists and politicians to cripple agriculture. The state’s pork and poultry trade groups joined the boycott.

Their resistance forced the state Department of Agriculture to postpone indefinitely its first meeting of the Task Force to Sustain Family Farming. “I think we need to talk with these organizations to discuss some of the broader issues they would like to see addressed as part of this effort,” agency spokesman Donald Vandrey said.

The panel, proposed by the Sierra Club, was supposed to evaluate the impact of large-scale hog and poultry feeding operations on family farms and the environment.

The environmental group contends such farming, often done under contract with large food companies, turns family farms into virtual factories that produce huge amounts of waste. State Sierra Club leaders say farms that contract to grow hogs and chickens are often absorbed by the corporations when they can’t meet the production requirements.

But many farmers regard concentrated animal feeding operations and contract production as options for staying in business in an age that demands efficiency and productivity.

Farm Bureau leaders and the livestock trade groups said they believe the task force was created as political payback for the Sierra Club’s support of Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1998 election.

Maryland Farm Bureau President Stephen Weber said it appeared to be part of a plan to further restrict the activities of farmers already feeling pinched by the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998. The state law, aimed at curbing fertilizer runoff into waterways, regulates farmers’ use of manure.

“We expect our government to keep its commitment to not pile on more regulations,” Weber said. “The government has decided the agricultural community is disposable.”

The Maryland Pork Producers Association and the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. also turned down invitations. “There is constant pressure from the state for legislation and paybacks to groups with alternative objectives that undermine the family farms,” said Kenneth Bounds, president of the poultry group.

More than 1,000 Maryland families grow chickens under contract to the five poultry companies on the Delmarva peninsula, Bounds said.

Mary P. Marsh, the Sierra Club’s state legislative chairwoman, said she was disappointed that the angry rhetoric was obscuring her group’s efforts to work with farmers toward common goals.

“The farmers themselves know that some of these practices aren’t good for the land,” she said. “What we want to do is basically talk to the farmers to see how we can help them basically stay on the land to keep it economically viable, keep it producing and how to keep their practices environmentally sound.”

VA bill seeks to increase DEQ sampling of water

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality would be required to take fish and sediment samples from state rivers every three years instead of five years and to post the results on the Internet under legislation being drafted.

The proposal follows published reports and a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee study that found the agency withheld data on water toxins, even from the EPA, and failed to notify the public of potential health risks.

The DEQ released the Virginia Toxics Database, created in 1993, to the EPA last year.

Del. Ted Bennett, D-Halifax and the likely sponsor of the bill, said it also would allow citizens to petition the State Water Control Board to conduct additional tests in places where the DEQ finds problems, or where the public suspects a problem.

The toxics database indicated that the Roanoke River, which runs through Bennett’s district, has PCB contamination.

A spokesman for the DEQ said the agency had no problems with the proposed bill. “Our interest is getting information out to the public,” said Bill Hayden, public affairs director at the agency.

Coast Guard targets ships that pollute at night/P>

The U.S. Coast Guard is using infrared cameras to find ships that dump oily bilge water or other pollutants into Hampton Roads waters at night.

Operation Nighthawk began Dec. 17. The high-tech initiative is designed to detect and locate the source of night oil and hazardous material spills in the vicinity of Hampton, Newport News and the southern branch of the Elizabeth River — areas known for numerous pollution incidents.

The goal is to catch intentional polluters by taking the night away from them, said Lt. Eric Miller, chief of marine environmental response for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Norfolk.

An infrared camera mounted on a Coast Guard helicopter senses temperature differences on the water surfaces, Miller said. In the warm summer months, oil holds its temperature longer than the water surrounding it. In the winter, the reverse is true. Either way, the camera will show the difference and record it on film.

Judges approve expanding Wilson Bridge to 12 lanes

A federal appeals court ruled on Dec. 17 that the proposed expansion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River can proceed, striking down a district court ruling that said extensive environmental tests had to be conducted before work on the project could begin.

The $1.9 billion proposal would expand the bridge south of Washington, D.C., from six to 12 lanes. A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, who said in April that planners violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider more fully a 10-lane alternative that would have had a less adverse environmental impact.

Virginia, Maryland and federal officials praised the ruling, saying the expansion will help alleviate congestion. “It was a dramatic rejection of the idea that a group of people can take environmental laws and essentially hold the entire region hostage,” said Attorney Barry M. Hartman, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Leaders of the Alexandria, VA-based Coalition for a Sensible Bridge, which filed a lawsuit last year to block the project, said they will decide in 2000 whether to pursue legal action.

The proposed expansion includes an interchange providing access to National Harbor, a proposed 534-acre resort on the banks of the Potomac. Environmentalists say the development would damage the river by eliminating wetlands and forest buffers.

The bridge, designed to carry 70,000 vehicles daily when it opened in 1961, now handles more than 200,000 vehicles a day.

VA urged to consider allocating funds to buy land, easements

A 170-tract of land adjacent to Kiptopeke State Park, was transferred from a nonprofit land conservation organization to the state of Virginia in November, adding a wooded stretch of critical habitat for neotropical migratory birds to the Eastern Shore park.

The tract, which had prime development potential, had been secured by the Trust for Public Land until the state could come up with the money — using a combination of state and federal funds — to buy it.

To continue to protect such places, conservation and preservation organizations have formed a group called the Conservation Land Coalition to urge the Commonwealth to permanently allocate at least $40 million a year to purchase land and conservation easements.

“Virginia is fortunate to have spectacular natural resources such as Kiptopeke State Park throughout the commonwealth,” said Debi Osborne, director of TPL’s Chesapeake Field Office and a member of the coalition’s steering committee.

“The opportunity for communities to protect specific natural and recreational areas, historic properties and rural and working landscapes will be magnified if a permanent fund for land conservation can be established.”

The coalition may get some help from the legislature. Lawmakers from both parties are planning to push for an annual $40 million investment in land preservation.

“This is the kind of thing we need to do now because you can’t do it later,” Del. Vincent Callahan Jr., R-Fairfax, told the Washington Post. Callahan is co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Del. Vance Wilkins Jr., R-Amherst, who is expected to be the first Republican speaker of the House in a century, has put forward a more modest plan that would spend $10 million a year.

That’s a sharp increase over the roughly $2.5 million spent last year to save land from development. Virginia spends considerably less on land preservation than either its neighbors to the north or south, and is one of the few states on the entire East Coast with no dedicated fund for land purchases.