Posted by: Tom Horton
(Posted by Tom Horton.)
Governor Martin O’Malley presumably thinks he’s helping Maryland poultry growers and processors by pressuring the University of Maryland’s environmental law clinic to drop out of a lawsuit aimed at stopping chicken farms from polluting.
But the pollution is real, it’s substantial and it’s not going to get better until the governor and agricultural interests acknowledge we have a problem with too much poultry manure.
But there is no excess manure, agriculture’s defenders argue; and they are correct in that farmers on Delmarva readily use all the manure they can get because it is a good, cheap fertilizer.
The only reason that works, however, is that the state still doesn’t require honest accounting for the water pollution this causes. The only real accounting is the condition of Eastern Shore rivers, none of which meet environmental standards needed to restore Chesapeake Bay, into which they drain.
When farmers spread manure they must put down enough to satisfy their crops’ need for both nitrogen and phosphorus. Soils in many places don’t need any phosphorus at all, a legacy of decades of overapplying manure, which is richer in phosphorus than nitrogen.
So to give crops enough nitrogen they continue building phosphorus to levels where it runs into rivers and the Chesapeake.
The only way to remedy this, to begin restoring Delmarva waterways, is to stop spreading so much manure on soils that can’t handle more phosphorus. Ironically, Maryland already acknowledges this problem in another venue: state regulations on the spreading of municipal sewage sludges on farm fields have a suite of requirements that prevent the polluting buildup of phosphorus in soils.
These ought to apply to agricultural manure as well. If we decreed that overnight, the tougher regulations would stick farmers with a huge disposal problem, since the poultry companies that supply them with chickens—also with the feed and medicines that go in one end of the birds—deny responsibility for what comes out the other end.
So what to do? First and foremost, acknowledge forthrightly that we have a problem, an excess of manure, a significant pollution problem. Stop the denial. Second, search for every alternative use of manure, for generating power, for making fuels for on farm use, for recycling into soil conditioners. There’s been significant progress here, but a good deal more is needed.
Another way to go is just what has happened. Years of denial and delay have begun to bring forth lawsuits, such as the one filed by the Waterkeepers Alliance against an Eastern Shore poultry farm, with legal support from the University’s environmental law clinic.
The governor’s heavy handed attempt last week to short circuit the university’s involvement in the lawsuit is nothing more than shooting the messenger. It ignores the science and does nothing at all for water quality and the public interest.