From poultry manure to menhaden, coal ash to climate change, Maryland and Virginia lawmakers are grappling this year with a bevy of touchy issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay.

In Maryland, activists’ top legislative priorities include several bills that failed to pass in prior years, including measures targeting poultry waste, bee-harming pesticides and stream-polluting plastic bags.

“Some of them may look familiar, but we’re going to cross them off our list this year and get them done,” Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters said of the green groups’ legislative priorities.  And they’re anticipating smooth sailing for a new bill that would commit the state to making deeper cuts in climate-altering air pollution. 

In Virginia, environmental and conservation groups are keeping a close eye on lawmakers this legislative session to ensure their budget and bills match the clean water commitments they’ve already made.

Funding for best management practices and storm-water reductions are among the top priorities, according to the Virginia Conservation Network, a coalition of 120 environmental organizations.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director, Rebecca LePrell, said she’s pleased that Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget includes “vital cost-share funding for farmers, sewage upgrades and oyster replenishment. “ Her organization is urging the General Assembly to maintain those commitments in the final budget.

McAuliffe asked for $21 million in fiscal year 2017 and $86 million in 2018 for agricultural cost-share programs to help farmers fence cows out of streams, plant riparian buffers and cover crops, among other practices. Those amounts compare with $27 million passed last year, which was $10.7 million more than McAuliffe originally requested in his budget. Keeping livestock out of streams has become a big issue in Virginia, as it’s a relatively inexpensive practice that improves water quality as well as animal health and helps stabilize banks.

The bay foundation faces a different sort of challenge in Maryland, where it’s joined with a broad coalition of environmental groups to back a bill that would make poultry companies responsible for the massive amounts of manure their flocks generate while being raised under contract across the Eastern Shore.

Green groups tried in vain last year to get a five-cent tax on every chicken raised in the state to help pay for efforts to reduce farm runoff of manure, which is a significant source of bay pollution.  But farmers and the state’s chicken industry, the 8th largest in the nation, have successfully squelched the “chicken tax.”

This year, they’re back with a bill dubbed the Poultry Litter Management Act, which takes a different tact. To be introduced this week, it would make the poultry producers, rather than their contract growers, responsible for dealing with any excess manure that the birds produce.

Poultry companies such as Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods contract with farmers to raise their birds, supplying the growers with feed, chickens, even fuel. But after the animals have been trucked away to the processing plant, the growers are left owning the manure.

For decades, this set-up has benefitted many farmers, as they could spread the manure on their fields to fertilize crops or sell it to a neighbor. But manure is rich in phosphorus, and officials have found many farm fields on the Eastern Shore are saturated with the nutrient because crops couldn’t use all of it.  With an estimated 228,000 tons of excess manure applied to fields annually now, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, much of it ends up in local creeks and rivers and the bay, causing low-oxygen “dead zones” in the water, fish kills and swimming advisories.

Supporters say the poultry litter bill builds on the “phosphorus management tool” regulation adopted last year by the Hogan administration, which proposes to scale back farmers’ manure use over the next six years.  Activists say family farmers don’t have the money to deal with the excess manure, and the public shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab, either.

“People around Maryland are doing more and frankly paying more to reduce waste from sewage plants, storm-water systems and other sources of pollution,” said Tom Zolper, spokesman for the Annapolis-based bay foundation. “Why shouldn’t the big poultry companies do more?  We think it’s only fair.”

Under the bill, poultry companies would be required to collect manure from their growers at least once a year. The companies either would have to haul it away to fertilize crops where its use wouldn’t threaten local water quality.  Or they would have to find environmentally preferable alternative uses for it, such as generating heat or electricity via anaerobic digestion.

Companies that fail to comply with the collection requirement could face civil penalties of up to $50,000 per grower, and regulators could seek even further court sanctions if necessary, according to Elaine Lutz, a foundation lawyer. Growers may opt out of the company’s manure collection program, she added, if they want to use it on their own fields or have separate arrangements for some alternative use.

Poultry industry and farm groups oppose the measure, just as they did the chicken tax.

“Honestly, I think it’s premature,’’ said Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau.  The phosphorus-limiting regulation doesn’t take full effect for six years, she pointed out. Farmers and state regulators are still in the process of analyzing nutrient levels in Shore fields, she said, and some preliminary data suggests the problem may not be as extensive as previously thought.

Maryland environmentalists also are seeking to curtail consumers’ use of certain pesticides and of plastic merchandise bags. And they’re pushing for legislation to curtail repeated diversions of state funding earmarked for land preservation.

Reintroduced is the “Pollinator Protection Act,” which would restrict the sale of pesticides containing what are called “neonicotinoids” to commercial and agricultural applicators. Plants and seeds sold in garden stores would have to carry warning labels if treated with the chemicals. 

Neonicotinoids are suspected of playing a role in the die-off of honeybees, though other researchers have said exposure to the chemicals are just one of several factors in the insects’ decline.

Activists have joined forces with faith leaders to promote the “Community Cleanup and Greening Act,” which bans plastic shopping bags at checkout. The flimsy bags make up as much as half the trash polluting Maryland waterways, by some accounts, and they’re frequently seen blowing down streets and sidewalks or tangled in trees and fences.

Bills to ban plastic bags or levy a fee on them have stalled in Annapolis before, but Julie Lawson, executive director, of Trash Free Maryland said activists have “really high hopes” this year.

Advocates also are seeking a legislative remedy for chronic diversions of state funds meant for preserving open space and farmland.

Since 2002, nearly $1.4 billion has been taken, and only a little more than half has been replaced with funds raised by issuing general-obligation bonds, according to a legislative analysis.  During the 2014 election, Gov. Larry Hogan criticized his Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley, for “raiding” Program Open Space and other environmental trust funds. Hogan vowed to halt the practice and to restore all the diverted monies.

The state budget Hogan recently proposed would make an extra $60 million available for land preservation over the next two years by trimming diversions lawmakers approved earlier. But his spending plan still takes $63 million next year that otherwise would go to open space, plus another $46 million in fiscal 2019.  And Hogan’s budget message mentions nothing about restoring any of the funds diverted in prior years.

Preservation advocates originally demanded open-space funds be put in a “lock box” that couldn’t be raided by chief executive and legislators. But facing resistance, advocates opted instead for something more flexible.  Under the bill, any open-space funds taken for other budget needs would have to be restored within three years.

“This is going to be as close to a lockbox as we can get” said Raettig.

Climate change legislation is the closest to a sure thing there is on Maryland environmentalists’ wish lists. Already introduced in the Senate with enough cosponsors to pass is a measure that pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state 40 percent by 2030.

If enacted – and it appears to enjoy support from the Hogan administration – Maryland would set one of the most ambitious carbon reduction goals among states in the nation.  The Senate bill builds on a seven-year-old law that has put the state on course to curtail its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, with 2006 as the baseline.

In Virginia, meanwhile, environmental groups are trying to block a bill that would give the General Assembly final say over the state’s plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring every state to submit a plan for meeting its Clean Power regulation. Virginia’s governor has the authority now to approve the plan drawn up by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, but legislation put forward in Richmond would give elected lawmakers oversight.

“This sets a dangerous precedent that any regulation from the federal level would not go through its historic avenues of approval but be subject to the General Assembly, who are not experts on these issues,” said Travis Blankenship, government affairs manager for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “The basic premise is that it puts politics over science.”

Supporters of the bill, though, say they are combatting a perceived “war on coal” in the state that threatens the jobs and economic vitality of the state’s coal industry.

On another front, Virginia activists expect a battle over fisheries management. The bay foundation is backing a bill that would transfer regulation of the menhaden catch from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which currently oversees the state’s other fisheries.

The foundation’s LePrell said the transfer would let the VMRC “provide input from a science standpoint in a way that the General Assembly isn’t able to.”  But she acknowledges the measure faces opposition from supporters of Omega Protein, which has a fishing fleet based in Reedville, Va., that harvests three-fourths of all the menhaden along the Atlantic coast.

Another bill likely to stir debate in Richmond would impose new requirements on disposal of coal ash left behind after power plants drain settling ponds. Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) introduced a bill that would require the coal ash residue left after pond draining be disposed of in landfills rather than capped in place, as is the current standard. The bill comes on the heels of a decision by the State Water Control Board to allow Dominion Virginia Power to drain the water from its coal ash ponds at two sites into local waterways. But the utility company will have to seek additional permit changes to deal with the solid waste of coal ash that is left behind.

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell contributed to this story.