EASTON — Proposed Phosphorus Management Tool regulations were published Monday in the Maryland Register, which sparked a 30-day public comment period opened by Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley submitted the regulations to the Administration, Executive and Legislative Review Committee in November, starting the regulations’ implementation process.

“While Maryland farmers have met all of the nitrogen goals under the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), there are concerns with obtaining agriculture’s phosphorus goals,” MDA Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance said in a statement Monday.

“The governor has been committed to adopting the regulations to fulfill Maryland’s commitment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Maryland’s WIP to update the current phosphorus risk assessment tool (the Phosphorus Site Index),” he said.

The proposal is to phase in a Phosphorus Management Tool, or PMT, over six years, with farmers who have the highest level of phosphorus in their soil being affected first, while also having longer to comply with it.

The tool will limit the amount of phosphorus-rich organic fertilizer farmers can spread on their fields, and force them to use alternative commercial inorganic fertilizer instead. The amount limited depends on the “Fertility Index Value,” or FIV, of a farm’s soil, but the tool only applies to farms with an FIV value of 150 or more.

The newest PMT proposal includes several conditional provisions, according to an MDA release:

• Organic producers may apply limited amounts of phosphorus under certain conditions, based on limited cost-effective alternative sources of fertilizer.

• Using tissue sampling, “farmers will be assured that the phosphorus needs of the crop will be met,” according to the MDA release.

• Vegetable and tobacco crops with proven higher phosphorus needs have additional flexibility.

• Farmers who adopt new technologies to reduce phosphorus in animal manure will have additional management options.

A economic cost-analysis report led by Dr. Memo Diriker at Salisbury University found that the PMT could cost Eastern Shore farmers, on average, $22.5 million over the six-year implementation.

The $22.5 million cost is after government subsidies for measures like transportation and alternative fertilizer are taken out of the equation. The total cost is estimated at $79 million, with $15.5 million of that being new funding Maryland officials would have to find elsewhere.

Depending on who is asked, the PMT’s implementation is either good, bad or premature.

Some environmental organizations are praising the regulations, calling them a much-needed step in improving the Chesapeake Bay’s health, since the point of the regulations is to reduce the phosphorus that is a factor in causing algae blooms in the Bay.

A coalition of nonprofit environmental groups called the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition released a unified statement on Monday following the tool’s publication in the Maryland Register that calls on the Maryland General Assembly to support the tool.

According to the coalition, Maryland’s poultry industry made $804 million in revenues in 2013, and advocates want the industry to help fund pollution cleanup costs, “and not expect small farmers or taxpayers to pay the full tab.”

“The science is clear: we are dumping too much chicken poop on already saturated soils, while the poultry industry continues to rapidly expand,” said Bob Gallagher, chairman of West-Rhode Riverkeeper Inc., which is in the coalition. “It makes no sense for Maryland to produce tons more poop until we have a plan to safely handle it and protect our waters.”

The Eastern Shore’s poultry industry, and the grain agriculture industry it coexists with, have pushed back on the regulations, citing negative economic consequences on an already fragile Delmarva Peninsula economy.

Standing with them are Eastern Shore state lawmakers, both outgoing and incoming, who have asked that the tool’s implementation be delayed again and a pilot program be completed first, saying further study to get more exact economic figures is necessary.

Shore delegation members, in a letter to O’Malley, wrote they’re still not convinced the Salisbury University cost analysis addresses the full economic implications to the poultry industry. They said it’s also not addressed how much less phosphorus will reach the Bay if the tool is implemented, and that the cost-analysis does not assess the value per pound of phosphorus reduced if the PMT is put into effect over the existing Phosphorus Site Index.

“Nowhere else in the country has such work been done to draw any meaningful conclusions that could be useful to the Maryland situation,” the Shore delegation’s letter states.

The Shore delegation is also asking that anyone effected by the PMT submit a public comment to MDA and the members of the AELR committee.

The Maryland Farm Bureau asked its members Monday to also contact members of the state’s AELR committee, stating that there is new and more accurate science that isn’t being used that could address nutrients in the Bay.

Comments can be sent to Hance and MDA by mail at 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401, by phone at 410-841-5881, by email at earl.hance@maryland.gov or by fax at 410-841-5914. Comments are being accepted by MDA through Dec. 31, 2014. A public hearing is not scheduled.

Follow me on Twitter @jboll_stardem.

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