Environmentalists want Virginia to protect creeks that run through the state's remote Eastern Shore from pesticides and other sediments that wash off plastic-covered tomato fields.

Farms that use so-called "plasticulture" should be regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality as if they were industrial polluters, speakers said at an Aug. 12 public hearing before a General Assembly task force.

The task force is studying whether current regulations adequately protect estuaries from plasticulture toxins. Of Virginia's 11,859 acres under plastic, 77 percent are on the Eastern Shore.

"Evidence abounds that the runoff from plasticulture is not typical of nonpoint-source pollution," said Bob Baldwin, representing the 800-member Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore. "Its channeling is much more like an industrial outfall."

Other speakers represented the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Virginia Shellfish Growers Association.

Members of the task force disagreed with environmentalists about the extent of the threat.

"I think we have sufficient regulations in place now to handle the problem," said Marvin Lawson of the Virginia Pesticide Control Board.

Lyn Gayle, the only tomato farmer who spoke at the meeting, said plasticulture farmers have enlarged and planted buffer strips, installed silt fencing and begun developing conservation plans to address runoff.

Steve Mallette, a task force member with the Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation District, said all five major tomato growers on the Eastern Shore have cooperated with his agency's investigation of the runoff.

The district is developing conservation plans for each of the tomato farms, including installing grass filter strips and redirecting stormwater into irrigation ponds. The effectiveness of such measures won't be evaluated until the next growing season, Mallette said.