REPORT OF THE CITIZENS PFIESTERIA ACTION COMMISSION
THE HONORABLE HARRY HUGHES, CHAIRMAN
NOVEMBER 3, 1997
In the Fall of 1996, and again in the Spring of 1997, Pocomoke River watermen reported finding lesions on high percentages of their fish catches from the lower Pocomoke. Typically, lesions on fish can be attributed to several different causes, including injury, secondary infections, toxic chemical effects, viral infection and potentially toxic dinoflagellates. After months of comprehensive water quality testing, in the late Spring it was suspected that Maryland's waterways faced a difficult challenge from little-known but potentially harmful microorganisms, Pfiesteria piscicida and closely related species. On August 6, 1997, hundreds of dead and dying fish were found in the Pocomoke River near Shelltown. The fish kill, which continued for 4 days, prompted State and local officials to close a portion of the Pocomoke River from August 7 through August 13. Water samples taken at the time of the fish kill tested positive for the toxic dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria.
Throughout the Spring and Summer, officials from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked with the local health departments on the Lower Eastern Shore to learn about Pfiesteria and to evaluate persons who had concerns about their contact with fish with lesions. These activities led to the creation of a Medical Team, headed by Dr. Glenn Morris. The Medical Team evaluated 13 people who had intensive exposure to the Pocomoke River or who complained of symptoms they believed were related to exposure to fish lesions.
A second fish kill began in Virginia waters of the Pocomoke Sound on August 26.
Maryland officials discovered fish with lesions and low numbers of dead menhaden in portions of the Pocomoke, leading to the closure of the impacted segments of the River on August 27 and August 28. Fish, water, sediment and Pfiesteria samples confirmed the presence of toxic levels of a Pfiesteria-like organism. On August 29, Governor Parris N. Glendening was informed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of the Medical Team's preliminary conclusions about the public health effects of exposure to the toxins released by Pfiesteria and Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates. The Governor and the local health officer closed the Pocomoke River on August 29 from Powell Wharf Road to the Maryland State Line as a result of the Medical Team's preliminary conclusions and the continuing Pfiesteria activity on the River. The River was reopened on October 3, 1997 in accordance with the provisions of the River Closing and Reopening Protocol that the State implemented after input from medical and scientific experts.
On September 10, 1997, Governor Glendening and the local health officer closed Kings Creek off the Manokin River in Somerset County after a significant number of menhaden were found in distress with Pfiesteria-like lesions. Four days later, a portion of the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County was closed after a similar discovery of distressed fish. Tests revealed the presence of toxic Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates in both waterways.
On September 15, 1997, Governor Glendening appointed the members of the Blue Ribbon Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission. The Commission was issued a broad charge and asked to report back to the public, the Governor and the General Assembly by November 1, 1997. The Commission held 12 meetings, all of which were open to the public, in Annapolis, Princess Anne and Chestertown. A copy of the Commission's membership roster, the Charge to the Commission and the agenda from each meeting are attached as Appendix 1. A chronology of events is attached as Appendix 2.
APPROACH OF THE COMMISSION
Maryland's experience with Pfiesteria has received national attention. Maryland's seafood industry struggled immediately after the fish kills, due to consumer uncertainty about the safety of eating fish. State, federal and private efforts to restore consumer confidence are in progress. Tourism on the Eastern Shore has suffered, as the Commission heard at the public hearing held at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Media attention on agriculture and the poultry industry has led to unfortunate and baseless speculation that Maryland may lose a portion of this large industry.
Impacts of Pfiesteria have been felt by the entire seafood industry - from the waterman who catches the fish or the charter boat captain who guides the recreational fisher through our waters, through the restaurant worker who serves the meal and the retailer who sells the fish. Another large industry, tourism, will suffer if people are not confident that the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries remain safe to swim in, fish in and recreate on. The poultry industry is a large and welcome employer on the Delmarva Peninsula and agriculture is a respected part of the history and culture of Maryland and its Eastern Shore. Nothing is gained if Marylanders and this Commission are forced to choose between the environment, the seafood industry, the poultry industry, tourism and agriculture. All of these things can thrive and coexist if we all work together.
The Commission, therefore, has been mindful throughout this process that all Marylanders are in this together. No one person or industry is responsible for causing this problem or for polluting the Bay, and altering one type of behavior or practice is not going to make these problems go away. Every environmental problem has many causes and widespread effects. With creative thinking and partnership, however, such crises can have diverse, broad-based solutions that are implemented by many people. The Commission's recommendations are meant to be fair, practical and the responsibility of every Marylander.
The Commission also recognizes that the Pfiesteria problem will not be solved overnight. Just as most environmental problems occur for many reasons, such problems occur over periods of time and can only be addressed over time. Maryland should not expect to be free of toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria in the Spring and Summer of 1998. In fact, the experience in North Carolina and in other states leads us to the conclusion that toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria affecting fish may well occur again next year. Maryland's 1997 experiences should enable us to continue to manage this problem effectively and protect the public if these outbreaks recur. Many of the Commission's recommendations involve additional research needs and endorse technologies or management approaches that are not yet fully developed or implemented, in recognition of the need to implement a continuing and evolving solution.
The Commission also recognizes the need to be guided by science in addressing this problem. The Commission has asked for input from many of the leading scientists in Maryland, the region and in the federal government. We believe that the findings and recommendations contained in this Report are based on the best available scientific information and we strongly encourage continued and intense research into the many issues surrounding Pfiesteria.
Throughout its deliberations, the Commission has been concerned about the need to solve environmental and economic challenges on a regional and, when appropriate, national basis. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries do not reside in Maryland alone. The Commission believes that the convening of the Governors' Summit in Annapolis on September 19, 1997 was an important symbolic and substantive step towards regional cooperation. The quality of the water in the rivers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland has an impact on the Bay and on the downstream waterways in adjacent states. Similarly, the grain and poultry farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore are in close and direct competition with farms in neighboring states. The poultry industry has a major impact on the region and competes nationally.
The Commission urges the states in the region to work together to implement the common sense solutions offered in this Report. Permanent and constructive solutions will only be achieved if we find regional solutions to regional problems. Similarly, we encourage the federal government to adopt national solutions to many of these problems so that Maryland's industries and citizens are not put at a competitive or economic disadvantage because of our efforts to preserve this precious natural resource.
Throughout this Report, the Commission offers recommendations that will cost money. In some instances, the Commission was able to easily identify possible sources of necessary funds. In other instances, we suggested possible funding sources. It is apparent that it will be necessary for the State to devote additional resources to address the issues raised in this Report. Governor Glendening has indicated a willingness to propose such spending, as evidenced by the State's expenditures on seafood marketing, cover crops, additional positions and health studies, as well as the considerable staff time that has been spent on Pfiesteria by personnel in the Governor's Office and the Departments of Agriculture (MDA), the Environment (MDE), Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) and Natural Resources (DNR). For many of these recommendations, including the equipment necessary for the use of the phytase enzyme and the establishment of composting pilot projects, it may be possible to utilize existing economic development programs in the Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED). Some recommendations call for the expansion or funding of established programs in MDA, MDE and DNR. Innovative programs may be implemented in cooperation with Maryland Environmental Service and the Maryland Department of Energy. The Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. has, so far, pledged to spend $1 million over 4 years and has indicated a willingness to be flexible on the use of the money. In implementing these recommendations, the State should explore all possible State and federal agency options, industry contributions and the development of private sector opportunities and markets.
THE SAFETY OF MARYLAND SEAFOOD
Maryland has received national attention for its efforts to respond to the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria and to inform the public about the organism and the health impacts associated with exposure to the toxins emitted by this dinoflagellate. An unfortunate result of this attention has been a negative impact on sales of Maryland seafood. Ironically, some merchants advertised the fact that their seafood was harvested in North Carolina, not Maryland, despite the fact that North Carolina's experience with Pfiesteria has lasted longer and been more severe than our State's experience.
The Commission finds that all of the best available scientific evidence leads to the conclusion that Maryland seafood remains safe to eat. This conclusion is drawn after a careful evaluation of testimony presented to the Commission and research conducted by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The Maryland Department of the Environment has been testing fish tissue samples taken from Pocomoke River fish for PCBs, metals and pesticides. Department officials testified before the Commission on September 24 and October 17, 1997, that most values were below detection levels, and all values were well within the range safe for human consumption. This information is attached as Appendix 3.
Dr. George Hoskin, Director of the Division of Science and Applied Technology, Office of Seafood, Food and Drug Administration, testified that federal studies have not revealed any dangers associated with eating seafood from Maryland. Dr. Hoskin indicated that existing research seems to show that seafood is not a "vehicle" for transmitting the toxins produced by Pfiesteria. Dr. Fred Shank, Director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified before Congress on September 25, 1997 that FDA has tested crabs from the Pocomoke River and "found no evidence of toxicity attributable to Pfiesteria." Dr. Shank also testified that "to date, no evidence has been identified to suggest a hazard for human consumption of seafood associated with Pfiesteria."
It is certainly understandable that citizens have expressed concern about the safety of seafood at the time a new and mysterious microbe was identified in Maryland's waters. As is often the case, such concerns can be overcome once information is provided about the issue and myths are addressed and adequately explained. Maryland acted quickly to partner with the private sector to educate the public about the safety of Maryland seafood and to initiate a comprehensive seafood marketing campaign. The Commission endorses the State's efforts to market the quality and safety of our seafood. We encourage the State to continue its enhanced education and marketing efforts, and we encourage restauranteurs, retailers and distributors to continue to participate in these efforts.
The Commission recognizes the importance of our seafood industry to Maryland's economy. It is terribly important that those who make a living on the Bay are supported during these challenging times. Senator Sarbanes testified that the Maryland Congressional delegation is seeking the establishment of a disaster relief fund in the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration to assist watermen through economic hardship resulting from this type of environmental disaster. The delegation is also seeking annual funding for the National Fisheries Institute to assess the economic impact of these occurrences on key coastal waters, and to work with the states to develop enhanced seafood marketing plans to promote seafood sales domestically and internationally. The Commission supports the efforts of Senator Sarbanes and Maryland's Congressional delegation to secure $1 million in federal aid for Maryland's seafood industry, as Senator Sarbanes described to the Commission. There is precedent for such aid, and we encourage the Department of Commerce and the National Fisheries Institute to expedite the approval of Maryland's request for federal assistance.
PFIESTERIA: THE ORGANISM, TOXIC OUTBREAKS AND THE ROLE OF NUTRIENTS
The knowledge about Pfiesteria is evolving and will likely not be brought to a satisfactory level for many years. As the Commission began its work, we recognized that we would not have every answer to every complex question. This Report and our recommendations are necessarily based on the status of the science as of this date. It is our hope that the Report will be used as a departure point for the efforts of Maryland and the nation to understand and manage this problem. One of our most important functions will be the identification of unanswered questions and our thoughts on how science should approach the study of this fascinating organism. We have a responsibility, however, to summarize our collective knowledge about Pfiesteria and the many peripheral issues at this time.
At the request of Chairman Hughes, Dr. Donald F. Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, convened a forum of noted scientists from this region to examine the existing body of scientific work on Pfiesteria and Pfiesteria-like organisms. The group issued a report, attached as Appendix 4, and presented its findings to the Commission on October 17, 1997. After much discussion, the Commission adopts the scientific findings and conclusions contained in the forum's report, The Cambridge Consensus, named for where the forum was held.
Although the Commission adopts the findings of the Cambridge Forum, it may be helpful to highlight portions of their findings. Pfiesteria and related dinoflagellates are protists; single-celled eucaryotic micro-organisms. They are not strictly plants or animals, as they do not have their own capacity for photosynthesis. Bacteria have been observed within the cells of Pfiesteria piscicida, perhaps as symbionts. Research is needed to determine whether symbiotic bacteria play a role in toxin formation, as is believed to be the case with some other dinoflagellates.
The Commission received much testimony regarding the possible role of nutrients in the development and proliferation of Pfiesteria populations, and in the transformation of the organism into a toxic stage. The role of nutrients in algal blooms around the world is well documented. Laboratory research conducted by Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, the scientist credited with the discovery of the organism, has demonstrated that the growth of non-toxic stages of Pfiesteria can be stimulated by the addition of inorganic and organic nutrients. Field studies conducted by Dr. Burkholder have demonstrated a correlation between phosphorus-rich waste outfalls and high concentrations of non-toxic Pfiesteria. Dr. Burkholder also testified about a discharge event from a swine waste lagoon that led to an algal bloom, the proliferation of Pfiesteria and a subsequent fish kill. These findings were carefully reviewed by the scientists participating in the Cambridge Forum.
It is important to note, however, that not all toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria occurred in nutrient-enriched waters. It is estimated that in North Carolina 75% of such outbreaks occur in nutrient-enriched waterways; 25%, therefore, occurred in relatively less enriched environments.
Currently, it is not clear what triggers Pfiesteria to transform into a toxic stage. The Cambridge Forum found, and the Commission agrees, that high nutrient concentrations are not required for Pfiesteria and Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates to turn toxic. In fact, if suitable concentrations of Pfiesteria are present, toxic outbreaks can occur even if nutrient concentrations are relatively low. Scientists believe, and the Commission concurs, that the primary stimuli for the transformation of the dinoflagellate into toxic stages are chemical cues secreted or excreted by the fish. In other words, fish must be present for a toxic outbreak to occur.
Simply stated, it appears that excessive nutrient loadings help create an environment rich in microbial prey and organic matter that the Pfiesteria use as a food supply. By increasing the concentration of Pfiesteria, nutrient loads increase the likelihood of a toxic outbreak when adequate numbers of fish are present. However, just as not every toxic outbreak of Pfiesteria occurs in nutrient-enriched environments, not every nutrient-enriched environment contains a high population of Pfiesteria. The Department of Natural Resources has developed a profile of a river that is vulnerable to experiencing a problem with toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks based on Maryland's experience, particularly in the Pocomoke River (attached as Appendix 5), and based on the characteristics of other rivers that have had problems with dinoflagellates. This profile has been reviewed by the scientists participating in the Cambridge Forum. A vulnerable river segment has shallow, quiescent waters with salinity and temperature levels within the organism's tolerance range. The slow-moving, shallow water and increased light availability allow algae to utilize nutrients that have perhaps entered the waterway upstream. Pfiesteria prey on the abundant algae, while menhaden and other fish prey in the same area on plankton that thrives under similar conditions.
During the course of the Commission's deliberations, citizens have suggested possible direct or indirect contributing factors for the Commission to examine. It has been suggested that pesticides may contribute to the proliferation of Pfiesteria. Fish tissue, water and sediment samples analyzed by the Department of the Environment (and referred to earlier in this Report), however, do not support this theory. Analysis of these samples consistently and almost uniformly failed to find toxic contaminants at potentially harmful levels. Similarly, it is unlikely that copper or other trace metals are responsible for reducing populations of other organisms that may feed on Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates, therefore contributing to the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria. Sampling data indicates that copper and trace metal levels are not high in the Pocomoke River. Further, as the Cambridge Forum concluded, in organic-rich waters such as the Pocomoke, copper and other trace metals get surrounded by large organic molecules, rendering the metals non-toxic even in high concentrations.
The Commission examined nutrient trends and attempted to determine why these outbreaks started to occur this year. One factor, which is obviously beyond anyone's control, appears to be the unusually wet weather Maryland experienced in 1996 and during the early part of 1997. This large influx of freshwater into the Bay and estuarine rivers brings with it larger than normal amounts of nutrients from the land. Similarly large freshwater flows also occurred in 1993 and 1994.
The Cambridge Forum reviewed data from the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program dating back to 1986 and water quality sampling data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in the Pocomoke River, Kings Creek and the Chicamacomico River during June to September 1997. The Forum found that nutrient concentrations in the tidal rivers of Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore are high relative to other rivers with similar salinity. Sampling data taken during and immediately after fish lesion events and fish kills indicate that these areas were zones of high algal abundance. Analyses suggest that nutrient concentrations in the lower portions of some Lower Eastern Shore tidal rivers have increased over the last 12 years. This conclusion can be stated with a greater degree of statistical certainty for nitrogen than for phosphorus, although phosphorus levels in most Eastern Shore waterways have remained level, at best, over this period.
To address nutrient loading problems, one must understand the sources of nutrients in the Bay and its tributaries. The Commission was presented with testimony on this issue by Dr. Walter Boynton and Dr. Boesch. Dr. Boynton presented Bay-wide data on where nitrogen and phosphorus come from, and what happens to these nutrients. Dr. Boynton's nitrogen analysis (attached as Appendix 6) suggests that 12% of nitrogen enters the Bay through acid rain, 28% comes from point sources and 60% arrives from diffuse land sources. Dr. Boesch presented a pie chart on nitrogen loading from human sources (attached as Appendix 7), which estimates that 21% arrives from atmospheric deposition, including that deposited on the land, 9% results from urban runoff, 28% comes from sewage and 42% is from agricultural sources. These figures do not include nitrogen that might naturally runoff from the land. Dr. Boynton's analysis of phosphorus loading (attached as Appendix 8) determined that 7% of the land and air based phosphorus loading comes from acid rain, 35% is from point sources and diffuse land sources account for 58% of the load. In addition, the Bay must handle an additional load of phosphorus equivalent to 37% of that it receives from land-based sources from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment presented pie charts that specifically illustrate nitrogen and phosphorus loads in Lower Eastern Shore waters and in the Pocomoke River watershed (attached as Appendix 9). The agencies estimate that approximately 70% of the nitrogen and 70% of the phosphorus load in Lower Eastern Shore waters comes from agricultural sources. While point sources account for only 4% of the nitrogen load, these sources account for approximately 22% of the phosphorus. Urban and residential runoff is the source of approximately 6% of these nutrients.
In the Pocomoke River watershed, approximately 82% of the phosphorus load and 74% of the nitrogen load is from agricultural sources. Urban and residential runoff accounts for 7% of the phosphorus and 9% of the nitrogen. Point sources account for 2% of the nitrogen and 9% of the phosphorus in the watershed.
The Cambridge Forum carefully stated their overall conclusion, a conclusion that is quoted in full below:
In the long term, decreases in nutrient loading will reduce eutrophication, thereby improving water quality, and in this context will likely lower the risk of toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates and harmful algal blooms.
As this Report noted earlier, nutrient reduction will not entirely eliminate the risks of toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria in Maryland or anywhere else in the country. However, after considering the best available science, the Commission concludes that decreasing nutrient loads in the Bay will likely reduce the risk of these outbreaks. In addition, the Commission strongly shares the belief of scientists and the public that reducing the nutrient levels in the Bay is generally good for aquatic life, human health and water quality and should be a focus of our pollution control efforts.
PROPOSED LAND-BASED SOLUTIONS TO THE NUTRIENT LOADING PROBLEM
The Commission strongly feels that a wide range of practices contribute to the challenges facing the Bay and its tributaries, and solutions to the problems impacting the Bay need to be addressed State-wide. It is important that everyone realize that the actions taken by each of us has an impact on the Bay. On October 17, 1997, the Commission examined the potential impact of nutrient runoff from lawns, golf courses and other non-agricultural land as a result of fertilizer application.
Approximately 20% of Maryland homeowners utilize the services of a commercial lawn care company. In an attempt to enhance the appearance of lawns across the State and across the country, homeowners apply nutrients to their property. Similarly, golf courses and other landowners apply fertilizer to grass to improve its appearance. Most of the time, fertilizers are applied by commercial applicators without regard to nutrient need analysis as determined by soil sampling. Homeowners often apply fertilizer on their own, some following the instructions on the product more carefully than others. This frequently results in the overapplication of nutrients and/or the deposition of fertilizer on impervious surfaces, which create the possibility of direct runoff of the fertilizer to our waterways and, eventually, the Bay.
Just as nutrient management plans for farms are based on soil samples, the Commission believes that commercial fertilizing professionals should apply nutrients only at a level determined by the needs of the lawn. The soil samples required for this analysis are relatively inexpensive. The Commission recommends that commercial fertilizer applicators be required to perform soil tests prior to fertilizing lawns and other grassy areas. The application of fertilizer should be limited to the amount of nutrients needed to maintain a healthy grass, as determined from the soil analysis.
The Commission understands that most homeowners choose for various reasons to either refrain from fertilizing their lawn, or apply commercially available fertilizers on their own. We believe that homeowners, like commercial fertilizer applicators, are interested in applying only the amount of fertilizer necessary to meet the needs of the grass. This saves money and helps protect the environment. If homeowners and lawn caretakers were provided more comprehensive information about the proper handling and application of fertilizers, nutrient loading as a result of these practices would be reduced. The Commission encourages the State to work with fertilizer manufacturers and retailers to conduct an informational campaign on lawn care needs, proper fertilizer application techniques and the importance of keeping fertilizers off of impervious surfaces.
Nutrient Loading from Point Sources
As the testimony of Dr. Boesch and Dr. Boynton points out, point source discharges are a significant source of nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the Chesapeake Bay. However, on the Lower Eastern Shore, the impact from point source discharge is considerably less significant, particularly for nitrogen loads. Point source discharges are regulated by the Department of the Environment.
According to the testimony of MDE Secretary Jane Nishida, there are 4 wastewater treatment facilities and 7 "relatively small" industrial point sources in the Pocomoke River watershed. In response to the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria, the Department of the Environment reviewed its permit compliance and whole effluent toxicity monitoring data records for the past two years. The Department also inspected the facilities on the Shore and collected water samples near the discharge points. The Department has determined that all permit violations at these facilities have either been brought into compliance or action is currently being taken to bring the discharges into compliance.
Efforts are currently underway to secure federal funding for the local share of
improvement costs for the Pocomoke City and Snow Hill wastewater treatment plants. The Commission has focused its attention on the nutrient loading problems in Lower Eastern Shore tributaries because of the Pfiesteria problems in those waterways. The Commission is also interested, however, in reducing nutrient loads from all point sources in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Commission encourages the Department of the Environment, working with the Department of Natural Resources, to identify those watersheds that are vulnerable to toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria according to our current knowledge of the organism and the conditions conducive to its turning toxic. State, local and federal resources should be targeted to implement BNR at treatment plants in those watersheds.
According to the 1990 census, over 340,000 housing units in Maryland rely on on-site sewage disposal systems (OSDS) to dispose of household sewage. Over 40 million gallons per day of OSDS effluent is discharged to the State's groundwater. Although current regulations require that the effluent be properly treated to remove bacterial contamination that could threaten human health, as much as 80% of the nitrogen in the effluent may reach groundwater. Recent estimates from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model indicate that nitrogen from OSDS enters Chesapeake Bay at the rate of approximately 3.7 million pounds per year. This represents about 6 percent of the total nitrogen loading to the Bay from Maryland.
The Commission believes that the nitrogen loading from OSDS can be significantly reduced through the use of cost-effective best management practices (BMPs) applied to existing and newly constructed OSDS. BMPs can vary widely in effectiveness and cost, ranging from regular maintenance pumping of septic tanks and/or inexpensive effluent filters (costing $100s) to recirculating sand filter systems (costing $1,000s). The Commission recognizes that the specific type of BMP used will need to vary depending on the type of OSDS used and the natural characteristics of the proposed site. In most instances, some type of BMP can be appropriately applied to reduce nitrogen loading to the groundwater.
The Commission recommends that the Maryland Department of the Environment require that best management practices be employed in the design and construction of all new on-site sewage disposal systems, using appropriate policy changes and/or regulatory amendments. Mandated practices should include improving the performance of septic tanks by establishing standards for water tightness and by requiring multi-component tanks and/or effluent filters. The Department should work with local health departments to develop a list of mandated best management practices and an implementation schedule.
At the request of Chairman Hughes, Dr. Thomas A. Fretz, Dean of the University of
Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, convened a group of scientists to advise the Commission on the current scientific thinking on the movement of nitrogen and phosphorus in an agricultural setting, alternatives for managing and controlling nutrients on farms and options for using and handling poultry litter. A copy of the Agricultural Science Group's Report, The Agricultural Perspective, is attached as Appendix 10. Portions of the Report are summarized and relied upon below.
The Nutrient Management Program administered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland since the late 1980s has concentrated on assisting farmers to manage nitrogen. At the time of the establishment of the Program, nitrogen appeared to be more problematic than phosphorus, as it was thought that phosphorus losses could be controlled through soil erosion control measures.
Crops require varying amounts of phosphorus relative to nitrogen depending upon the crop produced. The amount of phosphorus contained within organic sources of nutrients, such as manure, compared to the levels of nitrogen within the manure, does not usually correspond to the nutrient needs of crops. If these organic materials are used to meet the nitrogen needs of the crop, phosphorus is overapplied. If the use of the organic material is limited to the phosphorus needs of the crop, nitrogen is underapplied and commercial fertilizer must be added to meet the needs of the crop.
Nitrogen and phosphorus behave differently in soil. A certain portion of nitrogen will volatilize and enter the atmosphere. In addition, inorganic and organic forms of nitrogen are lost through surface water runoff and through soil erosion. Finally, soluble nitrogen compounds can leach through the soil-water system if the nitrogen is not used by the crop or if it migrates below the root zone of the crop. Although many accepted best management practices for controlling nitrogen have been developed, wider use of these practices can further limit nitrogen losses from agricultural land.
Phosphorus is generally found in two forms, particulate phosphorus and soluble or dissolved phosphorus. Particulate phosphorus binds to the soil and can move with surface runoff as soil erodes. Dissolved phosphorus can enter waterways with surface water runoff even if soil erosion is controlled. As the testimony of Dr. Frank Coale revealed, the dissolved phosphorus problem has largely been ignored as efforts to control particulate phosphorus and soil erosion have been the focus of control measures. Recent research also indicates that there is a potential for phosphorus leaching into groundwater on sandy soils with high phosphorus contents. Dr. Coale also testified that 70% of the soil samples tested at the University of Maryland test "high" or "very high" for phosphorus. The phosphorus levels on the Lower Eastern Shore are the highest in the State.
It is important to note that Maryland farmers were not aware of the recently discovered science regarding the potential movement of dissolved phosphorus. As Dr. Coale and the Agricultural Science Group point out, this science has been recently developed and farmers have not been previously advised that dissolved phosphorus is a concern.
The Commission recognizes the need to implement best management practices that are consistent with the best available science. Most of our current practices are directed at the control of nitrogen. The Commission shares the belief of the scientific community that our future efforts should be expanded to apply our current scientific knowledge not only to the control of nitrogen, but also to the control of phosphorus migration.
Simply stated, land-based phosphorus can be kept out of the Bay and its tributaries by: (1) keeping excessive levels of phosphorus off the land by refraining from applying unnecessary phosphorus or applying it at lower levels; (2) containing phosphorus on the land and keeping it out of the water once it is on the land and; (3) removing excess phosphorus from the land.
Controlling Phosphorus - Keeping Excessive Levels off the Land
1. Nitrogen- and Phosphorus-based nutrient management planning.
As stated by the Agricultural Science Group, it is possible to develop nutrient management plans for farms by using either nitrogen or phosphorus as the limiting nutrient. By its very nature, nutrient management planning must focus on the particular needs of the soil for the crop being grown. For many farms across Maryland, phosphorus levels are not a concern, and it is likely that the prime consideration will be the nitrogen needs of the crop. For many other farms, however, there is a need to limit the addition of phosphorus and to consider nitrogen and phosphorus needs when applying fertilizers.
The Commission recommends that Maryland adopt a phosphorus-based and nitrogen-based nutrient management system. Phosphorus-based nutrient management plans should be used for fields that have excessive soil-test phosphorus levels and a strong potential for phosphorus loss based on a phosphorus index. Moving to a phosphorus-based nutrient management program should help farmers avoid the inadvertent overapplication of phosphorus that has occurred when organic fertilizers are applied to a field to meet the nitrogen needs of a crop.
The Commission also heard testimony that because Maryland does not currently consider phosphorus in nutrient management planning, phosphorus has been unnecessarily overapplied when farmers are advised to apply a "starter" fertilizer to their crops at the beginning of a growing season. These commercially available starter fertilizers include phosphorus as well as nitrogen. Often, a crop does not need the phosphorus that is in this fertilizer. It is intended that the move to phosphorus-based nutrient management planning will eliminate this practice on soils with excessive levels of phosphorus. The Commission also heard testimony that this practice may be on the decline, as farmers are finding that the starter fertilizer enhances the appearance of the crop in the early part of the season but has little or no effect on the yield of the crop in the long-term.
The Commission's overriding goal in this effort is to reduce the unnecessary application of nitrogen and phosphorus so that these nutrients do not exceed levels that the crop needs and the land can retain, in order to ultimately prevent nutrient migration to our waterways. The Commission recommends that the State enroll all farmers in nutrient management plans by the year 2000. These nutrient management plans should be fully and demonstrably implemented by 2002, contingent upon the State supplying the appropriate level of education, outreach, technical support and financial resources necessary to meet these goals. In the event that resources are not sufficient to meet the statewide goals, the State should focus its initial efforts on Maryland's most severely nutrient-impaired watersheds.
The Commission recommends that the Governor convene an oversight committee consisting, at a minimum, of the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment, a member of the Senate of Maryland and a member of the House of Delegates to oversee the development and implementation of appropriate nutrient management programs and best management practices. The plans should be responsive to developing scientific findings and technological advancements. The oversight committee should also aggressively oversee the research into and the development of alternative uses of animal manure, including transporting, composting, burning and marketing of manure and manure-based products. The oversight committee should work closely with the agricultural community, the animal growing and dairy industries, the General Assembly, the environmental community, the private sector, the Department of Business and Economic Development, Maryland Environmental Service, the Maryland Department of Energy, Maryland's public and private universities and other appropriate State, federal and local agencies. The oversight committee should report semi-annually to the public, the Governor and the General Assembly on the progress on these items.
As noted above, it is very important to expedite research into alternative uses of manure and the development of markets for manure and manure-based products. The success of the State's nutrient management program is directly related to the State's ability to provide alternative outlets for manure that a farmer may not be able to apply to his or her land because of the needs of the crop and the recommendations of the nutrient management planner. The Commission stresses the importance of developing alternative uses for manure in conjunction with the movement to nitrogen- and phosphorus-based nutrient management planning. The oversight committee should report to the Governor and the General Assembly on January 1, 2000 on the status of the program, the implementation of alternative uses for animal manure and the ability to meet the schedule outlined by this Commission.
In order to make immediate progress in the redistribution of manure, the Commission recommends the establishment of a pilot program aimed at transporting chicken manure from the Lower Eastern Shore. We recognize that this is a temporary alternative and that it will require the cooperative efforts of the State, the agricultural community, the poultry industry and the private sector to make it a success. The Commission is encouraged by the Delmarva Poultry Industry's intent to contribute $1 million over 4 years to research needs and DPI's willingness to apply some of this money to this type of pilot program.
For farmers who primarily or exclusively utilize commercial fertilizer for their crop needs, the implementation of phosphorus-based nutrient management planning will most likely have no financial impact on their businesses. Farmers who utilize manure to meet their crop needs and who have high phosphorus levels in their soil will be impacted if they are unable to apply manure to their crops and alternative markets for manure are not developed. The implementation of these nutrient management plans should consider the economic impact on the farmer. This economic impact consideration should include an evaluation of additional costs to the farmer, as well as offsetting benefits from the sale or distribution of the manure and financial benefits received from the State or federal government through cost-sharing programs, cover crops and other assistance.
Approximately one-half of current nutrient management plans are developed by the University of Maryland and one-half are developed by private sector consultants retained by individual farmers. The Commission was concerned to learn that copies of privately-developed nutrient management plans are not submitted to the Department of Agriculture or the Cooperative Extension Service. The Commission believes that copies of all nutrient management plans must be submitted to the Department and to the Cooperative Extension Service in its role as a scientific and educational agency, in a manner that protects the privacy of the individual farmer. The Commission also believes that nutrient planning standards and guidelines developed by the University of Maryland must be utilized by all Cooperative Extension Service planners and private sector planners.
The Commission is also concerned about the Department's inability to review the plans developed by contractual private sector nutrient management planners because only one employee has been assigned oversight and monitoring responsibilities. After nutrient management plans are implemented, extensive monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of the plans must be conducted. As demonstrated by the recent University of Maryland survey, attached as Appendix 11, it is possible to design oversight tools to evaluate the implementation of nutrient management plans. The Commission is also aware of the recent formation of "teams" of MDA employees and Department of the Environment employees. The Commission endorses this "team" approach and recommends that this approach be expanded in order to conduct more comprehensive oversight of nutrient management plans. These evaluation teams should semi-annually report their findings to the public, the Governor and the General Assembly.
2. Use of the phytase enzyme in chicken feed.
One method of reducing the amount of phosphorus applied to the land is to reduce the amount of phosphorus in animal manure. An advantage of commercial fertilizer is the ability to control the mix and amount of nutrient applied to the soil. As Dr. Coale, Dr. Brodie and the Agricultural Science Group pointed out, however, the consistency of manure is unpredictable and manure often contains a disproportionate amount of phosphorus relative to nitrogen. To the extent that manure is used as a fertilizer, lower levels of phosphorus in the manure will lead to lower levels of phosphorus being applied to Maryland farms.
The most encouraging proposal the Commission heard in this area was the use of the phytase enzyme in the feed. Like humans, swine and poultry are not able to utilize the full phosphorus content of plant-source feed ingredients such as corn. It is estimated that chickens can use only 30% to 40% of the phosphorus in feed. The remaining 60% to 70% is in the form of phytate phosphorus, which requires the enzyme phytase to break down to forms of phosphorus available to animals. Chickens do not secrete phytase, so the phosphorus in the form of phytate passes through the chicken and into the chicken waste. The 30% to 40% of usable phosphorus is not sufficient to meet the dietary needs of the chicken, so feed mills add inorganic phosphorus to feed to maximize the growth potential of the animal. Application of the phytase enzyme to the feed will enable chickens to break down and utilize the phytate phosphorus in the corn, reducing the need to add inorganic phosphorus to the feed and, therefore, the amount of phosphorus in the manure.
The Commission strongly recommends that phytase be added to feed supply as soon as possible. The Commission encourages the industry, the State, surrounding states and the federal government to work together to implement the necessary technology as soon as possible. The phytase enzyme is currently used in the United States in fish feed and is used in Europe. Use of phytase can produce an immediate reduction in the amount of phosphorus in chicken manure, perhaps by as much as 20-25 percent. The Commission urges that the industry work with the public sector to invest in necessary capital improvements. The Commission recommends that Maryland (and surrounding states) establish a cost-sharing program to assist in the conversion of these feed mills. We recommend that, at the very least, this practice should be used at all feed mills on the Delmarva Peninsula, in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorus that is available to be applied to the land and, eventually, reach the Bay. We also encourage the federal government to examine the implementation of a national standard in this area.
The Commission recognizes the need for additional research in this area. We believe that this limited research can be completed rather quickly. For example, the Commission is familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannine Dennis-Harter at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, among others, in the field of poultry nutrition and the reduction of nutrient inputs into feed. The Commission encourages the State and the industry to adequately fund such work at the University System of Maryland so that the use of the phytase enzyme can begin as soon as possible. We also recognize the need for longer-term research into the interaction between the feed, the phytase enzyme and the use of low phytic acid corn, which is discussed below.
3. Manure storage sheds and dead bird composters.
Another method of reducing nutrient loading is the proper storage of nutrient-containing manure before it is applied to the field and the use of environmentally-friendly disposal methods for dead animals. The recent Preliminary Characterization of Agriculture in the Pocomoke Watershed survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Agriculture (the Agriculture Assessment, attached as Appendix 12), estimated that 73% of farmers with animals in the watershed utilize a waste storage structure. Testimony from the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. stated that 57% of farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula use these structures. The Agriculture Assessment mentions that storage sheds are a very successful and popular part of the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program (the MACS Program).
The Agriculture Assessment indicates that many farmers who do not raise animals apply manure to their fields. The survey revealed only 67% of the farmers raise animals, but 85% of farmers applied manure in 1997. Further, 22% of the farmers who grow animals sell or give away all of the manure produced by their animals. The current MACS Program only provides cost-share benefits for manure storage structures constructed on animal farms. Farmers who apply manure but who do not grow animals are not eligible for assistance. The Commission recommends that the MACS Program be expanded to allow non-animal growers who store and apply manure to be eligible to receive State assistance for the construction of manure storage sheds. Of course, the State should be careful not to invest money in such structures if the land on the requesting farm does not need additional phosphorus as determined by the phosphorus-based nutrient management plan recommended by the Commission earlier in this Report. The expansion of the MACS Program in the manner we describe is important as the State seeks to limit the application of additional phosphorus to land that does not need it, and as the State explores the redistribution of manure to farms that can use it, as we discuss below.
4. Litter treatments.
Advancing technology has reduced the frequency of required whole poultry house cleanings. Poultry manure accumulates in the bedding of the poultry house for several years. Nutrients accumulate as the manure accumulates. While nitrogen levels stabilize after the third flock of birds, phosphorus levels continue to increase. Techniques are being developed to apply a litter treatment that will stabilize manure phosphorus into environmentally inactive forms. The Commission encourages the University System of Maryland and the industry to develop and, when appropriate, implement the use of such litter treatments.
5. Low phytic acid corn.
It is estimated that a low phytic acid corn will be commercially available by the year 2000. Like the use of the phytase enzyme, use of this corn could reduce the need to add inorganic phosphorus to the feed. This, as discussed above, limits the amount of phosphorus in the manure. Growers will incur an additional cost to grow the crop, reflecting the need to maintain the unique identity of the seed and the corn. This identity will also have to be preserved in the marketplace and at the feed mill. However, to the extent that use of the product reduces the need of the feed mill to add inorganic phosphorus to the feed, there will be some reduced costs as well.
The Commission recognizes that the use of low phytic acid corn may be a viable and important part of the effort to reduce the phosphorus content of the manure. Unfortunately, at this point it is a longer-term approach to the issue and is not ready for implementation. As noted above, we encourage the continuation and the expansion of the chicken nutrition research that is being conducted at our Universities. We believe it is particularly important that researchers begin evaluating the interaction between the phytase enzyme and the low phytic acid corn, so that phosphorus reduction efforts can begin as soon as technology becomes available.
Controlling Phosphorus - Keeping Excessive Amounts off the Land - Alternative Uses
1. The distribution problem.
The Commission recognizes that manure is not simply a waste product of the chicken or other livestock. Animal manure has economic value to the farmer who has access to the product and can apply it to the land. Use of the manure as a fertilizer helps the farmer meet the nitrogen needs of his or her crop. As we have mentioned several times, however, this has had the unintended and unfortunate effect of elevating phosphorus levels in several areas of the State. The Commission is also conscious of the fact that the commercial value of the manure is a function of its composition, its volume and the distance it needs to be transported.
The Commission received very instructive testimony from Dr. Herbert L. Brodie regarding farm animal manure nutrients (attached as Appendix 13). Dr. Brodie displayed a chart, Figure 12 in his testimony (attached as Appendix 14), that displayed poultry production in the 3 Lower Eastern Shore counties from 1987-1992. Dr. Brodie's data show a slight decline in the number of chickens produced during that period, but a more dramatic decline in the number of farms that raised chickens and the number of acres on which chickens were raised. Simply stated, while chicken production may have declined slightly, it has been increasingly concentrated on fewer acres. Dr. Brodie speculated that since 1992, poultry production "has likely expanded but stayed concentrated like other portions of the economy [have] since 1992."
According to the Agriculture Assessment, it appears that the application of manure on farmland is also concentrated. The survey showed that, in 1997, 85% of the surveyed farmers applied manure to their crops and the manure was applied to 42% of the cropland. The Commission notes that the Agriculture Assessment is a "snapshot" of practices in one crop year. The Assessment was not intended to analyze trends in manure application and crop rotation. Dr. Brodie conducted an analysis of the nitrogen and phosphorus of cropland by region (attached as Appendix 15). This chart demonstrates that the phosphorus content of the manure produced on the Lower Eastern Shore is more than sufficient to meet the phosphorus needs of the land in the region. Despite that fact, a small amount of sludge and several thousand tons of commercial phosphorus are applied in the region. The nitrogen in the manure is nearly sufficient to meet the nitrogen needs of the region. However, a small amount of sludge and a large amount of commercial nitrogen were applied to the land. Dr. Brodie's chart also illustrates that several regions of the State could utilize the nutrients in the manure from the Lower Eastern Shore to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus needs of the region's crops.
This testimony points out the apparent need to better manage and distribute the nutrients contained in animal manure. The Agriculture Assessment notes that, when asked what influenced the decision to apply manure to the field, 21.7% of the farmers said "disposal needs" influenced the decision, and 34.9% said that the fact that the "field was open" was a factor. The Commission is aware of the Delmarva Poultry Industry's Manure Clearinghouse. The Commission encourages the expansion of this program. We recognize that redistribution of the manure and alternative uses of the manure become very important as we move towards a phosphorus-based nutrient management program.
2. Alternative uses - composting.
The Commission is interested in maximizing the efficient use of the nutrients contained in animal manure in an environmentally-friendly way. Composting manure has several advantages. Temperatures during composting will destroy pathogenic organisms and the composting process will minimize the odor of the manure. Post-composting steps to add nutrients and to pelletize the manure can create a marketable fertilizer. Transporting composted litter also helps address some of the biosecurity issues that are present in the transportation and commingling of raw litter.
The Commission is aware of several "pilot" composting projects in Maryland and elsewhere. The Commission encourages expedited research into composting, post-composting processing and the market potential of a composted product. The Commission urges the industry, the State and the private sector to collaborate on these solutions.
3. Alternative uses - burning.
The Commission heard testimony that poultry litter is used as fuel in the United Kingdom. While earlier attempts at burning litter apparently encountered emissions problems, technology has likely solved that issue. Fuel needs can likely be met on a large scale, as is being explored by Maryland Environmental Service and DNR for the Eastern Correctional Institute (a copy of the MES proposal is attached as Appendix 16), or on a small scale, as evidenced by the demonstration project that is examining the use of poultry litter as a fuel source to heat broiler houses. In order to be viable options, these projects must have an adequate supply of litter, be in compliance with all environmental standards and be affordable.
Burning litter disposes of the manure and leaves a certain amount of ash that can be used to make artificial soils, as a component of a fertilizer mix or as a poultry feed additive. The Commission is encouraged by the prospect of burning the manure, and encourages further research and demonstration projects on this issue.
Controlling Phosphorus - Keeping it on the Land and Out of the Water
There will always be a certain amount of phosphorus on the land and, in many areas of the State, phosphorus should be added to the soil to promote healthy crop growth. It is important to properly manage the phosphorus on the land to limit its migration into our waterways. As the Agricultural Science Group pointed out, many best management practices are currently used to control phosphorus migration through soil erosion, including no-till farming, contour/strip cropping, grass waterways, buffer zones and other structural controls. Based on the testimony presented to the Commission, we believe that the use of some of these methods need to be reevaluated, refined or increased.
1. Tillage practices.
Based on scientific advice that was generally accepted at the time, many farmers moved to no-till or reduced-till practices. This practice reduced soil erosion and particulate phosphorus movement. New evidence suggests it is possible that the practice may concentrate phosphorus at the soil's surface and thereby increase the amount of dissolved phosphorus that is available to move in surface water runoff.
The Commission encourages the University of Maryland and the Department of Agriculture to continue to work with the agricultural community to evaluate the effectiveness of current agronomic practices such as no-till to balance the techniques for minimizing soil erosion, surface water runoff and leaching of nutrients from agricultural land.
2. Buffer zones.
As noted above, grassy strips, buffer zones and wooded land are proven methods of limiting nutrient surface runoff into our waterways. The Commission is encouraged by federal and State efforts to increase resources for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This program will provide increased payments to farmers who treat certain environmentally sensitive land in order to voluntarily restore wetlands, establish stream buffers and retire highly erodible land from production. This will promote forest buffers and other important conservation programs on Maryland farms. Under the current Conservation Reserve Program, many Maryland farmers were reluctant to participate because the per acre dollar amount was too low. It is hoped that the use of increased incentives, funded with approximately $170 million in new federal money over 15 years and over $25 million in State money, will increase participation rates.
The Commission urges the State to aggressively market CREP and to sponsor outreach and educational programs designed to maximize farmer participation. The Commission encourages all interested Marylanders to participate in publicizing this voluntary opportunity. Of course, the Commission urges farmers to participate in CREP.
Although it is not the preferred method of controlling nutrient loading, it may sometimes be helpful and necessary to take steps to remove phosphorus from over-enriched soils. The Agricultural Science Group presented several remediation options, most of which still require extensive research and development.
1. Drainage ditches.
Many farms are served by field drainage ditches. In soils where soluble phosphate is reaching drainage ditches, it is theoretically possible to chemically precipitate the phosphorus out of the water by using crushed limestone. The cost associated with this technique should be minimal, but the chemical dynamics of the procedure need to be better understood before its use can become widespread.
The Commission encourages the University of Maryland to work with the agricultural community to establish demonstration projects and to conduct expedited research into this process in order to better understand the chemical dynamics and the end result impact on the precipitated phosphorus.
The Agricultural Science Group also presented interesting information about a technique known as phytoremediation. This process involves the use of unique plants that have the ability to concentrate high levels of certain elements in plant tissue. Currently, there are no known "hyperaccumulators" for phosphorus. The Commission recognizes the potential value of phytoremediation and recommends further research into the identity and collection of the appropriate plants so that this technique can be explored.
Tillage holds promise as a site-specific technique for reducing phosphorus levels in the upper layers of soil. Tillage would "turn over" the soil, burying the phosphorus below the soil surface but within the root zone of the crop. In order for this technique to work, the subsurface soil must have a lower phosphorus content than the surface soil, and the subsurface soil must be conducive to supporting crop production. Further, this assumes that leaching of phosphorus through the soil column would not be significant. The Commission encourages the University of Maryland and the Department of Agriculture to continue research in this area and perform demonstration projects if appropriate.
The Commission's focus on phosphorus should not be interpreted as a lack of concern about nitrogen and its role in nutrient loading in the Bay and in the development of algal blooms. As stated earlier, we need to remain focused on controlling nitrogen levels in the soil and in the water. As the Agricultural Science Group noted, many best management practices are directed at limiting nitrogen losses.
The Commission heard testimony from Dr. Russell B. Brinsfield, a summary of which is attached as Appendix 17, about the need to focus on reducing nitrate leaching. Dr. Brinsfield pointed out that nitrate leaching losses occur even when all crop yield goals are met and all best management practices and a nutrient management plan are implemented. Dr. Brinsfield estimates that the utilization of cereal grain cover crops can reduce nitrate leaching losses by 60% following a corn or soybean crop. Unfortunately, the Agriculture Assessment determined that only 45% of surveyed farmers utilized cover crops as a best management practice. The Commission strongly encourages the regular use of cover crops as a best management practice.
Governor Glendening provided $2 million for a cover crop program during the Fall planting season. The goals of the program were to provide drought assistance to farmers in areas of Maryland that had severe crop damage this year, to provide a feed crop for livestock farmers who suffered from the drought and to remove excess nutrients that were built up in drought-stricken soil and nutrient-enriched areas on the Eastern Shore. The Commission supports Governor Glendening's actions on cover crops. The Commission strongly recommends that the State implement a continuing cover crop program designed specifically to limit nitrate leaching and to prevent nutrients from entering the Bay and its tributaries. The State program we envision will necessarily differ from this year's program, because of the current program's multiple goals. We anticipate a meaningful level of support for a program designed to meet the specific goal of nutrient reduction. Participants in the program should not be permitted to assist crop growth by adding nutrients from organic or commercial fertilizer.
The Commission also notes the State's unsuccessful efforts to partner with the federal government on this cover crop program. The Commission encourages the federal government to provide support for Maryland's cover crop program, possibly through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.
There has been a well-documented decrease in the number of positions in the Department of Agriculture. The Commission understands that this decrease is reflective of the general downsizing of State government because of the recession in the early part of this decade and the workforce reduction that resulted from the passage of early retirement legislation in 1996. A common theme throughout many of our recommendations and from the testimony and correspondence from many people in the agricultural community is the need for outreach to and education of the individual farmer. The farmer relies on the University and the Department of Agriculture for the status of science and the evolution of new and improved agronomic practices.
This Commission is proposing significant changes in nutrient management planning and is encouraging the State to expand participation in and support for cost-sharing programs. These recommendations will not work unless the State and the agricultural community work together to implement them. The Agriculture Assessment estimated that additional existing measures to address potential water quality problems could be implemented on one-third of the surveyed farms. The Assessment noted that earlier studies identify "lack of information as the main reason a [best management practice] is not adopted."
The Commission believes that participation in MACS cost-sharing programs such as manure sheds, dead bird composters and CREP improvements, as well as programs such as cover crops and nutrient management planning, can be enhanced by increased outreach and technical assistance. The Commission encourages the State to provide an appropriate and meaningful level of support to the Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service in order to increase the use of existing best management practices and to otherwise implement the recommendations of this Commission.
The Commission does not intend to micromanage on this item. However, the Commission believes that efficiencies can be achieved if the Department of Agriculture reevaluates the division of labor between Department employees, Soil Conservation District employees and Cooperative Extension Service employees. The Department should explore the possibility of cross-training employees and expanding duties of employees. As noted elsewhere in this Report, the Commission endorses the MDA and MDE "team approach" and believes that efficiencies can be achieved using this approach, enabling the Departments to work together to meet and evaluate the goals set forth in this Report.
PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUES
It is very important to note that Maryland has received national recognition for its attention to the public health aspects of the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria. It goes without saying that we must all focus our attention on protecting the watermen and the public from the dangers associated with the toxins emitted during fish kill and fish lesion events.
In the early portion of this Report, the Commission noted the existence of a Medical Team that has been active in the State's investigation. A copy of the Medical Team's Medical Evaluation of Persons With Exposure to Water Containing Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like Dinoflagellates was presented to the Commission and is attached as Appendix 18. The Medical Team's Report was the culmination of the State's early efforts to understand the potential impact on human health of exposure to Pfiesteria toxins. A summary of the State's focus on the health impacts of these toxins is attached as Appendix 19.
Evidence presented to the Commission strongly suggests that toxins released by Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and elsewhere can produce human consequences, primarily manifested as cognitive impairment, particularly impacting short-term memory abilities. Some evidence suggests that human health can be impaired by exposure to toxin levels in the water in which distressed and lesioned fish have been observed, but fish kills have apparently not occurred.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene established a surveillance system in June 1997 to gather information about human illnesses that may be related to toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria. As of late October 1997, 146 persons have reported illness, exposure to diseased fish or exposure to waters that have been the site of suspected Pfiesteria activity. The Commission believes strongly that a comprehensive and effective surveillance system must be in place to ensure timely warnings to the public of the possible need to close waterways that may be posing a threat to individuals. The State should maintain a central registry of all potential and confirmed cases of possible clinical manifestations of toxicity from Pfiesteria. The information in the registry should be regularly analyzed and appropriate epidemiological studies should be initiated to provide a basis for the exercise of sound public health decisions.
As with any new public health threat or disease, there is a need to educate physicians about the possible signs of exposure to Pfiesteria and its toxins. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sent a letter to Eastern Shore physicians in early June 1997 to describe the known symptoms and to encourage health care providers to report suspected illnesses related to Pfiesteria to the Department through the local health officers. The Department, local health officers and members of the Medical Team have also been engaged in regional educational presentations to explain this problem. The Commission strongly encourages the continuation of this outreach effort to physicians and other health care providers, particularly in the impacted areas. The Department should review its questionnaire for reporting exposures and illnesses to be more specific and useful in detecting possible Pfiesteria related illnesses. The Department has provided staff support to the State's toll-free Pfiesteria hotline in order to offer guidance to citizens who call to report symptoms or possible exposure to the toxins emitted by Pfiesteria. The Commission notes the importance of screening callers for possible symptoms and the subsequent collection of pertinent information. To the extent that it is necessary to provide additional medical-oriented support to the hotline, the Commission urges the Department to take appropriate action.
The Commission is concerned that, given our present level of knowledge concerning the risks associated with human exposure to Pfiesteria toxins, it is conceivable that individuals may be suffering from exposure to levels of toxin that produce a subclinical level of disease that is not readily apparent to the individual, but may nonetheless be affecting their health. The current river closing policy being followed by the State and local health officers takes into account increasing levels of distressed or lesioned fish, regardless of the presence of actual fish kill activity. This appears to be the proper approach to protecting public health, considering the state of our knowledge of the long term impact of extended exposure to low levels of toxins, as described above. Of course, this procedure requires continued monitoring of the fin fish in the Bay and our tributaries, as described below.
The Commission notes that Maryland is fortunate to have access to outstanding federal, State and private institutions that can assist our efforts to implement a comprehensive surveillance system and to undertake much-needed epidemiological studies. The recommendations of the Commission in the area of public health should be implemented by the appropriate State and local authorities with the technical advice and consultation of appropriate federal agencies (including the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.
As noted above, the Commission is concerned about the possible development of symptoms and illnesses that are not easily identifiable and that may result from low-level, long-term exposure. The Commission recommends that vigorous and wide-scale clinical and epidemiological studies be conducted to better define the clinical and subclinical manifestations of varying degrees of exposure to Pfiesteria toxins. The State should immediately proceed with these studies in consultation with the appropriate federal, public and private institutions.
Earlier in this Report, the Commission discussed the safety of Maryland's seafood and the need to inform the public about the continued safety of Maryland fin fish and shellfish. The public is entitled, of course, to sound scientific advice on this matter. Preliminary studies and fish tissue sampling indicate that seafood remains safe to consume and it is not believed that fish are a vehicle for transmitting the toxin. The Commission urges expedited laboratory and epidemiological studies to identify and quantify the presence of toxins in edible seafood, including fin fish. These studies should focus on shellfish that are traditionally filter feeders, such as oysters and clams.
FUTURE SURVEILLANCE, MONITORING AND ASSESSMENT NEEDS
A Bay-wide rapid response capability is required to protect the health of Maryland's citizens by identifying affected water, attributing causes of the problem as soon as possible, providing data to officials making decisions on waterway closures and continuing to monitor problem areas to determine when a waterway's condition has returned to safe levels. The heightened awareness of the Pfiesteria problem has led to hundreds of reports of potential problems throughout the Bay and its tributaries that must be evaluated, including extensive field and laboratory testing. This surveillance is also critical for epidemiological studies and the identification of areas that might be in need of environmental management initiatives. The hotline and rapid response program established by the Department of Natural Resources during the Summer of 1997 allowed for the immediate identification and implementation of actions necessary to protect public health during Pfiesteria outbreaks on the Pocomoke River, Kings Creek and the Chicamacomico River.
The Commission recommends that the Department of Natural Resources continue to work in cooperation with the Maryland Department of the Environment to comprehensively monitor the Bay and its tidal tributaries for signs of fish health problems and/or Pfiesteria-like organisms. This monitoring would include the continuation of the 24 hour a day hotline and the fulfillment of the responsibilities of State agencies under the recently adopted revised Protocol for Closing and Reopening Rivers Affected by Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like Organisms. Of course, this effort should utilize the most recent research techniques for identification of Pfiesteria-like organisms and their toxins and include information on water quality that can be used to further clarify the relationship between environmental conditions and toxic outbreaks.
Several areas of the State appear to be particularly affected by the threat of Pfiesteria-like organisms. In these areas, there is a need to better understand the relationships between fish health, Pfiesteria-like organisms, water quality and regional pollutant sources so that management initiatives can be developed and implemented with a high degree of certainty. Where management initiatives have already been implemented for impacted areas, there is a further need to track the environmental response to ensure that conditions are, in fact, improving. This longer-range capability would be used to verify the effectiveness of these initiatives. This type of work is currently ongoing for affected areas of the Lower Eastern Shore through an interagency team of State and federal representatives (The Lower Eastern Shore Study Team) chaired by the Department of Natural Resources. This team has presented its findings to the Commission concerning fish health, Pfiesteria, water quality and pollutant sources and has been working closely with outside scientists including the State's Technical Advisory Committee, the Cambridge Forum and Dr. JoAnn Burkholder.
The Commission recommends that the current comprehensive evaluations of impacted regions continue, led by the Study Team chaired by DNR. The Commission further recommends that this Team include representatives from DNR, MDE, MDA, DHMH and other State, federal, public and private entities that are necessary to provide needed expertise and resources. The scope of the Team would include fish health, Pfiesteria-like organisms, water quality and pollutant sources. These evaluations would be targeted to answer the following key management questions:
What is the nature of the fish health problem in affected areas?
What is the extent and duration of significant (to human and fish health) levels of Pfiesteria-like organisms?
What is the nature of the relationship between water quality and any other key factors and the presence of Pfiesteria-like organisms?
What are the principal water quality problems related to Pfiesteria-like organisms and what are the sources or causes of these problems?
Based upon the existing profiles of impacted waterways and the latest research, are there watersheds that may be vulnerable to toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like organisms?
In areas where management measures have been implemented to reduce nutrient loading and, consequently, the likelihood of outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like organisms, are these measures having the desired effect?
The Study Team should be responsible for submitting periodic reports to State, legislative, local and federal officials.
Since the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria, the Maryland Department of the Environment has intensified its monitoring and inspection of point sources in impacted watersheds. The Commission recommends that the Department of the Environment continue its enhanced permit compliance inspections and monitoring of these sources. These efforts are necessary to reassure the public that pollution sources continue to be properly controlled in impacted areas and that problems are quickly identified and corrected.
As noted above, the Board of Public Works recently approved three additional positions in the Department of Agriculture and three additional positions in the Department of the Environment to work cooperatively in the evaluation of agricultural operations in impacted watersheds to ensure that various best management practices are properly implemented. As previously stated, the Commission endorses this cooperative effort. Follow-up inspections and monitoring should be carried out as necessary to ensure that identified problems are corrected and that management measures are properly implemented.
FUTURE RESEARCH NEEDS
The Commission believes it is appropriate and necessary for the federal government to assume a lead role in the research on the biology, environmental requirements, effects and mitigation of effects of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates. This regional problem is part of a national problem related to algal blooms and overenrichment of coastal waters. As such, it requires a national approach based on partnerships involving the traditional roles of the federal government to support science of national importance and the states to support excellent university research facilities and maintain faculty expertise. Maryland has developed world-class research capabilities in biological, environmental, agricultural and medical research in its public and private universities. The Commission encourages the federal agencies to work in partnership with the University System of Maryland, the State's private institutions and Maryland state agencies, under the principles of merit review, to address the critical research needs identified in the federal research strategy.
The Commission is grateful to the national authorities who testified before us and
who shared with us the drafts of the national strategy, National Harmful Algal Bloom Research and Monitoring: An Initial Focus on Pfiesteria, Fish Kills and Public Health (attached as Appendix 20), and we strongly endorse the strategy and hope it will receive full support from the Administration and Congress. The Commission has reviewed the proposed federal research strategy and, along with the appropriate State agencies, offered comments on that plan, a copy of which is attached as Appendix 21. The Commission endorses the federal strategy and its eight objectives which address: (1) characterization of toxins; (2) detection methods; (3) the sources and consequences of toxins; (4) prediction methods; (5) management and mitigation of toxic outbreaks; (6) rapid response and monitoring; (7) information and education; and (8) data access. The Commission believes that research and monitoring that lead to more effective protection of human health, fish and fisheries and more effective controls of nutrients are of paramount importance. The Commission also urges the federal government to conduct research into the effect that dinoflagellates and/or algal blooms may have on animals that may not have contact with the water during the toxic phases of these organisms, but that may consume fish and shellfish from impacted waters.
The Commission has also made specific recommendations for research in the area of public health. The Commission believes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has played, and can and should continue to play, an important role in the study of the human health impact of these toxins. The Commission recommends that, when federal funding becomes available for the CDC multi-state study, Maryland should be a full and active participant.
The Commission was fully briefed on the current state of knowledge regarding Pfiesteria. There is much that remains to be learned about the biology of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates, their identity, their many stages of life, the factors that allow them to grow and change into toxic forms and the effects of their toxins on humans and aquatic organisms. There are reports of variations among Pfiesteria's strains, so it is urgent to isolate Maryland strains in order to study those strains specifically and to compare them with strains from North Carolina, Florida and elsewhere. In addition, the Commission's evaluation has highlighted the need for research on more effective agricultural management practices consistent with current scientific knowledge. Witnesses before the Commission whose lives may be impacted by our recommendations have stressed that they are willing to accept changes if they are based on sound science. In this situation, it is extremely important to launch a greatly expanded program of basic research at the national and State level.
Several research recommendations are highlighted in earlier portions of this Report. In addition to those recommendations, the Commission identifies the following high priority research topics:
1. Isolation, identification and classification of the species and strains of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates existing in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. This must involve establishment of pure cultures and better means of rapid identification. A high priority is the development of gene probes based on the organisms' genomic sequences.
2. Isolation of toxins and the characterization of their chemical structures and pharmacalogical actions in humans and aquatic organisms. Such research is essential for both health and environmental effects research to proceed.
3. Determination of life histories and ecology of all Pfiesteria-like species, including their nutrition, responses to nutrients and expression of toxicity. More specific needs are identified in The Cambridge Consensus. An objective of this research should be to improve prediction of toxic outbreaks and target prevention strategies.
4. Characterization of human exposure risks to toxins of Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates, including neurological, physiological and epidemiological studies.
5. Quantification of the transport of nitrogen and phosphorus leaching from manures, sludge and fertilizers and the effectiveness of improved nutrient management practices, including cover crops, manure management and more effective animal food formulations.
Maryland's universities, independent research institutions and State agencies are at the forefront of scientific fields relevant to addressing these research needs. The University System of Maryland, in particular, has already demonstrated leadership in addressing the Pfiesteria problem through estuarine science (the Center for Environmental Science), medical research (School of Medicine), agricultural research and extension (College of Agriculture and Natural Resources) and molecular biology (University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute). We note also the strong assistance of Johns Hopkins University in the public health aspects of Pfiesteria. The Commission recommends that these public and private institutions, on-campus departments and System-wide programs, particularly the Maryland Sea Grant College, coordinate their research and outreach activities regarding Pfiesteria to the maximum extent possible.
FEDERAL REGULATORY EFFORTS
The Commission heard testimony from Bob Perciasepe, Assistant Administrator, Office of Water, Environmental Protection Agency, that EPA is in the early stages of evaluating the animal feeding operation regulations that were developed in the 1970s. A national conference was held on this issue in April 1997, with the expectation that new permitting guidelines for confined animal feeding operations will be implemented by EPA early next year. EPA had been researching Pfiesteria in Florida and North Carolina prior to Maryland's experience with the organism.
In late October 1997, Vice President Gore directed EPA to develop a comprehensive regulatory and enforcement strategy to reduce nonpoint source pollution and to restore wetlands. Under the Vice President's directive, EPA must identify major sources of nitrogen and phosphorus in waters and develop a plan for reducing nutrient loading from the identified sources. Water quality guidelines are to be implemented by 2000. EPA is also being charged with expediting the development of new standards for sources of pollution runoff, including animal feeding operations.
Mr. Jim Lyons, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, United States Department of Agriculture, discussed the formation of a workgroup on agricultural operations and the environment to focus on these issues. The USDA is evaluating many of the same technologies and strategies that this Commission has discussed, including the use of the phytase enzyme in feed, the behavior of nutrients in soil, the handling and storage of manure, soil testing for phosphorus and the use of various best management practices.
As the Commission noted several times in this Report, Maryland's farmers and poultry industry compete with businesses across the country. While we must take appropriate steps to protect our watersheds, competitive factors warrant the development of national standards on many of these issues that are of concern across the country. The Commission strongly supports national efforts to address issues that are common to the national poultry and agribusiness industries. The Commission urges EPA, USDA and other federal agencies to keep the States informed of national regulatory plans. The Commission also notes the important federal role in providing support to the states as the states and the federal government work together to apply measures to reduce the environmental and economic impacts arising from toxic outbreaks of these dinoflagellates.
ADOPTION OF THE COMMISSION'S REPORT
The Commission completed its work on October 31, 1997. The Report of the Commission was adopted, with the dissenting votes of Delegate Guns and Rick Nelson. Delegate Guns has submitted comments on the Commission's recommendations (attached as Appendix 22).
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