Maryland agriculture officials are weighing the delay or easing a 4-year-old regulation aimed at curbing farm pollution of the Chesapeake Bay after farmers and municipal sewage treatment plant operators said they need more time to comply – or want out from under it altogether.

Under the regulation, neither animal manure nor treated sewage sludge, known as biosolids, may be spread on farm fields during the winter. The ban was adopted because crops don’t grow in cold weather and wouldn’t take up the fertilizer then, making it more likely to wash off into nearby water ways and ultimately the Bay.

The rule was adopted in 2012, but its effective date was delayed until July 1 to give farmers and wastewater utilities more time to build facilities to store the manure or sludge until it could be applied to fields in spring. Small farmers and small community sewage plants still have another four years – until 2020 – to comply.

Farmers using poultry manure as fertilizer already had a similar wintertime ban on spreading it, so the 2012 rule largely applied to dairy and hog farms, which generate liquid manure, and to other farms that fertilize crops with  biosolids from municipal facilities.

Even with four years’ notice, farming, food-processing and wastewater treatment group representatives have told state agriculture officials some in their industries could not have adequate storage facilities ready by this winter. So, officials have called a special meeting Tuesday of the state's Nutrient Management Advisory Committee,. at the Maryland Department of Agricultures’s Annapolis headquarters.

The committee, which is comprised mostly of  farmers, state officials, and farm group representatives, is being asked to advise Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder on how to proceed.

The winter application ban was controversial when it was adopted as part of new nutrient management regulations promulgated during the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.  Dairy farmers and treatment plant operators alike complained at the time that storage facilities would be costly, and they questioned the need. Maryland’s current governor, Larry Hogan, is a Republican who ran on a promise to give farmers and other regulated entities a “seat at the table” on rules and policies affecting them.

Agriculture officials declined to talk until the meeting on Tuesday. But an email to the committee from Dwight Dotterer, chief of the state’s nutrient management program, said the department would consider all perspectives.

“Arguments for and against any deviation from the regulation will be heard and considered,” Dotterer said.

Doug Myers, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the only environmental group represented on the nutrient management panel, said he and other advocates would object to a blanket extension of the regulation.

“Our response has been a collective, ‘Boo- hoo! . You have known about this for four years,’” he said. “This is going back on a promise made four years ago. There is so much feet dragging going on. This is already a compromise -- the environmental community wanted this regulation four years ago.”

Environmentalists saw the winter ban on manure and sludge spreading as a key measure to reduce pollution from farms, which collectively are the leading source of the nutrients that feed algae blooms and trigger fish-suffocating dead zones each spring and summer in the Bay.

Myers, whose group has worked with farmers to get money for many conservation practices in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said he understands there may be grounds for some case-by-case exceptions. Manure storage for dairy operations is expensive, and with 455 such farms in the state, he said, it’s likely many farmers could not get all the government money or technical help they needed to erect the facilities. , Storage for waste from dairy cows and hogs can cost between $100,000 and $500,000, depending on the operation, farmers have said.

One Eastern Shore dairy farmer said he was surprised to hear there were problems with the storage requirement.

“I hadn’t even heard of it until you told me,” said Danny Holland, who farms 220 acres in Worcester County and has 200 head of cattle. Holland said he put in his manure storage 10 years ago, and it cost him about $100,000.

Holland is the only dairy farmer in his county, and he said most of the other dairy farmers he knows already have their manure storage under control.

But Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said dozens of farmers who have tried to comply with the regulations have been stymied by the lack of cost-share funds and the tight time frames. Even with government help, she said, they still have to come up with a significant amount of money on their own.

“Farmers have been working for four years. Soil conservation has been working for four years,” she said. “They need more time.”

Close to 80 dairy farms have not complied with the regulation, according to the Delmarva Farmer.

Connelly said she also would like to build some leeway into the duration of the winter ban, to account for the weather. Many years, she said, it’s warm enough through December for crops to grow and take up nutrients. She asked why the state couldn’t come up with a flexible rule that reflects variable conditions.

Chris Pomeroy, an attorney who represents the Maryland Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies, said that his clients shouldn’t be part of the regulation at all. Treated sludge, he argued, is far less of a risk to waterways than manure because it has undergone industrial treatment processes. Many states encourage biosolid land application as a way to dispose of sewage sludge safely and without having to incinerate it.

“I think there is a serious question as to whether we should even be building these,” Pomeroy said. “They are expensive storage facilities, they tend to be unpopular with the public, they are not met with open arms, they entail truck traffic in and out, and there are odor-control issues.”

Pomeroy said the sludge industry got unfairly lumped in with manure storage in Maryland.  Other experts, on the other hand, have said winter application of sludge posed risks to waterways.

But the regulation did come out in the wake of a lower Shore farmer being accused by environmentalists of improperly storing poultry manure on his property. The pile turned out to be biosolids, and the Maryland Department of the Environment cited the farmer, Alan Hudson, for keeping it too close to a drainage ditch. An administrative law judge later vacated the penalty against Hudson, because there was no law at the time requiring him to store the pile any differently.

Myers opposes exempting biosolids from the winter application ban, as well as the farm bureau’s pitch for flexibility in when the ban would begin or end.

“The industry knew about it, they had access to cost share dollars, and now the eve is upon them to comply with this thing, and they are testing the waters to see if a more sympathetic administration will be more flexible,” he said, “This is a classic, ‘Your failure to plan is not an emergency on our part.’”