February 9, 2015
Last week, I attended the Annapolis Summit 2015, hosted by the Marc Steiner radio show, where I had the opportunity to hear Maryland’s top elected officials, including Governor Hogan and Attorney General Frosh, speak about topics important to voters, such as education, gun violence, the environment, and the state budget. I was pleased that the health of the Chesapeake Bay came up multiple times in the audience’s questions. However, a common theme that emerged from the summit discussions was the tension between protecting the sustainability and health of the environment, and meeting short-term economic goals for growth and development, as well as protecting Maryland’s poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.
Both Governor Hogan and AG Frosh said that they were committed to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, but were unclear about how or when they planned to act on that commitment. Indeed, recent actions suggest otherwise, at least for the newly elected governor, who pulled the plug on tighter phosphorous regulations within his first few days in office. The regulations, which would have required farmers to more strictly monitor and control phosphorous run-off from the chicken manure applied to their fields, had been in the works for two years, and were passed by Governor O’Malley just before he left office.
In case you forgot, here’s a recap on phosphorous pollution.
The poultry litter (a.k.a. chicken manure) used to fertilize fields on the Delmarva Peninsula is very high in phosphorous, which when over-applied, leaves the soil and flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Too much phosphorous in the Bay has led to toxic overgrowths of algae, resulting in low-oxygen dead zones, where aquatic life can’t survive. To learn more about phosphorous pollution and how it harms the Bay check out this previous blog post by CLF’s Christine Grillo. While waste water and storm water run-off are also major polluters of the Bay, agriculture is responsible for nearly half of all the phosphorous in the Bay, and when it comes to waterways along the Eastern Shore, that number jumps to approximately 80 percent, where 228,000 excess tons of manure are applied to fields every year.
The main argument voiced by politicians at the summit in response to questions about addressing phosphorous pollution, was that the phosphorous regulations would put Maryland’s poultry farmers at an economic disadvantage compared to other farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula, who would not be subject to the same rules. They also voiced concerns that the poultry processors, such as Perdue, who contract with the poultry farmers, might leave Maryland if tighter phosphorous regulations were adopted, putting Maryland’s poultry farmers out of business.
The vast majority of poultry farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, are small contract growers for large chicken processors, such as Perdue, who control all aspects of growing the chickens, but burden the growers with the job of storing and disposing of the poultry litter. Under the regulations, if soil phosphorous levels were too high on a field, Maryland farmers would have to cover the cost of shipping poultry litter off their farms, and would have to purchase chemical fertilizers to replace it. Although subsidies are available to help cover the cost of chicken litter storage and transportation off the Eastern Shore, they only cover some of the costs, leaving farmers with the rest of the bill. Many think it’s unfair that the farmers should have to foot the bill for storing and disposing of the chicken litter, while the processors reap most of the profits on the chicken. At the summit, members from groups such as Food and Water Watch called on the Governor to hold poultry processors accountable for the waste.
According to Bob Martin, Food Policy Director at the CLF, “One possible solution is a three-state agreement between Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, to jointly combat the unfair contracts and business practices being promulgated by the large chicken processors, which violate anti-trust laws.” He asked AG Frosh, at the summit, about his willingness to pursue such a solution, and the Attorney General said that he was open to the idea.
In summary, both the Attorney General and Governor stated that cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a priority for them. However, neither of them were able to commit to specific, concrete actions to clean up the Bay or provide a timeline on when they would do so. At this point it’s too soon to say whether or not they will be true to their word, but lets hope that they will find solutions that don’t sacrifice the sustainability and health of the Chesapeake Bay, “a national treasure,” according to Governor Hogan, for short-term economic fixes.
Photo: Downtown Annapolis and Spa Creek, leading into the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Jane Thomas)