Panel Urged to Complete Report on Fish-Killing Microbe

WASHINGTON POST

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Monday urged a commission studying recent outbreaks of a fish-killing microbe to complete its work by Nov. 1 so he can forward its recommendations to the state Legislature, which convenes in early January.

"I think there will be some people who say to you, 'We need to be 100% sure about the cause before we do anything,' " Glendening told the commission, which he appointed, during a welcoming address in Amnapolis, Md. "I don't think that's going to be possible . . . I would urge you to use your best judgment and use some good common sense."

Headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, the 11-member commission comprises a cross-section of Marylanders--several academics and elected officials, a poultry farmer and a prominent environmentalist. It is to report on likely causes of the eruptions in Chesapeake Bay tributaries of the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida and on possible ways to prevent future outbreaks.

Most of the morning's proceedings were devoted to an exercise in "introductory Pfiesteria" as a team of state scientists, joined by North Carolina botanist JoAnn Burkholder, explained the basics of the "cell from hell."

Burkholder detailed how pfiesteria spends most of its life as a harmless creature on the river bottom and how, in conditions not fully understood, it is transformed into a highly toxic, ravenous devourer of fish.

Pfiesteria is blamed for killing more than 1 billion fish in North Carolina and about 30,000 on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where part of three rivers remained closed Monday. Maryland officials have blamed the microbe for a variety of ailments, including memory loss, in more than two dozen people exposed to pfiesteria-afflicted waters.

Glenn Morris, a University of Maryland physician who heads a team of medical experts studying pfiesteria-related health problems, told the commission that many of those sickened were harmed by exposure to toxic vapors that hover just above affected areas of water.

Burkholder confirmed that such vapors are a significant factor, though she emphasized that the toxic gas is quickly diluted as it moves away from pfiesteria-afflicted waters. Even just a few yards away, it is unlikely to pose risk, she said.

The early part of Monday's meeting had a made-for-television feel, as state officials assured the commissioners that they were treating the problem with utmost seriousness, and television crews shuttled microphones around the room.

But as the proceedings went on, commissioners began to assert themselves, asking blunt questions, particularly about the validity of speculation that the poultry industry is to blame for pollution believed to nurture toxic pfiesteria.

Burkholder and other scientists say pfiesteria thrives in nutrient-rich waters. Animal waste--much of which comes from the eastern shore's chicken farms and is widely used as fertilizer--is packed with nutrients.

One member of the commission, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, said last week that he hopes recent pfiesteria outbreaks will help the passage of legislation he has wanted for years: mandatory restrictions on how farmers can use animal waste. The governor has said such legislation seemed likely but lately has tempered such forecasts, calling for a comprehensive look at all possible sources of pollution.

Commissioner Frederick W. Nelson Jr., a second-generation eastern shore poultry farmer and president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau, listened intently and skeptically as state officials named agriculture as the chief culprit.

He asked if any tests might identify the sources of nutrients in the river. Burkholder said that such tests are available but that they are neither cheap nor foolproof.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°