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Don’t Chicken Out on Poultry Policing II

Maryland’s Department of the Environment promises aggressive steps beginning next week to stanch the flow of pollution from Eastern Shore poultry farms into Chesapeake Bay.

Coupled with the General Assembly’s focus during its closing hours on critical area protection, the coming days could be a time of significant progress in Bay restoration.

If our leaders don’t lose their political will.

The Environment Department set March 31 as a deadline for finishing new regulations governing poultry producers, including the requirement for a comprehensive nutrient management plan.

It’s about time that environmental regulators — and not agriculture promoters — took a crack at slowing the nitrogen pollution that flows from Eastern Shore farmlands.

How does this happen?

Poultry operators spray vast quantities of their manure — referred to politely as litter — on farm fields as fertilizers. It’s a good plan to clean out chicken houses and add nutrients to soils. But those fields typically become saturated, the spraying continues — and the nitrogen and phosphorus run into rivers and streams, choking Chesapeake Bay with algae blooms.

Last fall, The Baltimore Sun did us all a public service by disclosing that Maryland’s Agriculture Department checks only about 10 percent of poultry operations for nutrient management plans.

When you factor in that Maryland produces some 270 million broiler chickens a year — eighth most in the country — you get an idea of the scope of the problem.

Finally, the Department of the Environment is stepping in to play a significant role. Regulation will mean more extensive nutrient plans for individual poultry farms — before they’re allowed to discharge waste into Maryland waters. The new rules have other requirements, from more soil testing to anti-runoff buffers. They’ll cover about 200 of Maryland’s 900 poultry operations.

Poultry growers are predictably upset by the impending changes. We have little sympathy for most of their protests given the precarious state of Chesapeake Bay and the efforts and expenditures on the Western Shore aimed at cleaning up the Bay.

But we believe that the state should not saddle the farmers with new permit fees (starting at $120) on top of nutrient plan preparation costs that could run into the thousands. Many small farmers operate close to the margin, constantly squeezed by bigger processors.

If Maryland is requiring these environmental safeguards, the state should require that most of the costs be paid by either federal programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or Maryland’s Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share program.

With poultry pollution diminished on the Eastern Shore and sewage treatment plant upgrades from the flush tax on both shores, the water in between might soon be clearer and free of many of those ominous summer dead zones.

If, in the days ahead, we don’t chicken out.

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