Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Secretary John R. Griffin Testimony before House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans Committee on Resources

Thursday, October 9, 1997 -- 10:00 AM

Thank you, Mr. Chairman for inviting me to talk with you about how Maryland is addressing the ongoing problem of Pfiesteria. Let me also take this opportunity to say that all of us in the State are very grateful for your actions, and the critical support we have been receiving at the federal level.

Right now, Maryland is facing an unprecedented challenge to the health and vitality of our waterways and our citizens. As most of you know, in recent weeks three Eastern Shore waterways -- the Pocomoke River, a creek of the Manokin River watershed, and a section of the Chicamacomico River -- have all experienced outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria-like organisms.

Pfiesteria and Pfiesteria-like organisms are not only threatening our Bay tributaries and their watersheds, they are also having a dramatic impact on the lives of Maryland’s citizens and visitors. Our farmers, our anglers, our fish merchants and our hospitality businesses are all being affected to some degree.

Although Maryland was the first state in the nation to link toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria to concerns about public health, we are not alone in our experience with this problem: Delaware experienced a massive fish kill in 1987 that may have been be Pfiesteria-related; Pfiesteria-like organisms have been found in Virginia’s Rappahannock River; and North Carolina has been struggling with this problem for more than six years. Pfiesteria knows no geographic boundaries.
Yet while other states have been challenged by Pfiesteria-like organisms, and Maryland has learned from them, our experience is somewhat unique. Indeed, while the Bay literally divides our State geographically, it is also a powerful unifying force in the lives of many Marylanders.

The Chesapeake Bay is much more than a body of water. The Bay and its tributaries support the region’s economies, provide a wealth of recreational opportunities and are a significant component of our quality of life. One need only visit our State capital, Annapolis, to see just how true this is: Treasure the Chesapeake license plates abound. T-shirts, bumper stickers and calendars urge us to Save the Bay. Shops, restaurants and boating facilities proudly link their identity to our beloved Chesapeake Bay. As my boss, Governor Parris N. Glendening, said in his testimony to the Government Reform & Oversight Subcommittee on Human Resources last month, “Maryland is Maryland because of the Chesapeake Bay.“

I am pleased to see that you have invited two of the people we have come to rely on most during this crisis, Dr. Don Boesch and Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, to address the science of this issue -- the conditions that may be responsible for toxic outbreaks of this type of micro-organism, and our ability to predict, detect and manage them.

I know, however, that I speak for Governor Glendening and my counterparts at the Maryland Departments of Environment, Health, and Agriculture, when I say we have become far more expert on this subject than we had ever hoped need be.

Included as part of my written testimony is a chronology of our Pfiesteria-related activities to date that details what Maryland has done about Pfiesteria so far; what we plan to do about the this problem in the future; how the federal government is helping us now, and what they can do in the months ahead. Here, I would like to provide you with a brief summary of this information.

Maryland’s response to occurrences in the Pocomoke, Manokin and Chicamacomico watersheds, has received national attention. When Pfiesteria first became a problem, Governor Glendening assembled an inter-agency team, led by the Secretaries of Agriculture, Health and Mental Hygiene, Environment and myself, to address this issue. Throughout our efforts to identify and understand this microbe, we have also been working with Maryland’s academic and scientific institutions, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Watermen’s Association, and renowned experts like Dr. Boesch, Dr. Burkholder and Dr. Karen Steidinger of Florida.

During this period, we have also been working closely with the people of Maryland. They are the ones who are feeling the economic impact of this problem; they are the one whose quality of life has suddenly changed; and they are the ones who’s health is being threatened.

For this reason, Governor Glendening has, with the full support of his cabinet and Maryland’s local officials, insisted that the public has a right to know the same things we know. It is our hope that sharing information with the public has given the public confidence that we are doing the right thing in protecting public health.

While Maryland is working hard to accomplish several objectives, first and foremost is our responsibility to protect public health. Whether it is the consumers, the watermen or the recreational water enthusiasts, nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our citizens.

The good news is that Maryland seafood is safe to eat. The seafood we buy at the grocery store and eat at restaurants does not come from affected waterways, and the Governor has implemented a statewide seafood marketing campaign to inform and reassure o the public. Yet, while we know our seafood is safe to eat, we also know that toxic levels of Pfiesteria-like organisms are harming fish, and in some cases, are being linked to human health problems.

We received our first report of people becoming ill in April. At that time, the local public health officials, under the direction of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, encouraged anyone experiencing unusual illnesses to see their personal physician and to report their illnesses to the local health department. Since then, the State’s medical team has continued to aggressively investigate the causes and effects of the presence of Pfiesteria-like organisms in Maryland’s waters.

On August 6, we experienced our first major fish kill in the Pocomoke River, where as many as 15,000 fish were found dead or dying. We immediately issued a public health advisory to avoid all water contact in designated areas. When the fish kill continued, the Governor ordered an indefinite closure of the area and directed Natural Resources police to ensure compliance. Results from testing of water samples from the August 6 fish kill indicated the likely presence of Pfiesteria-like organisms.

On August 26, a fish kill occurred in the Virginia waters of Pocomoke Sound. We again issued an advisory to avoid water contact in nearby Maryland waters.

On August 29, the State’s medical team, which included doctors from the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, accompanied by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, presented the preliminary results of their evaluations of persons reporting illnesses thought to be associated with Pfiesteria. Their research has shown that people had suffered skin irritation, skin lesions, respiratory problems, as well as memory loss and other neurological problems.

As a result of this report, which found that persons exposed to the Pocomoke River during an outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria experienced difficulties in learning and short-term memory, on August 29, Governor Glendening ordered that the Lower Pocomoke River be closed. Although there was much discussion about closing the river on the Friday before Labor Day, Governor Glendening made the decision to move on the side of caution in consideration of public health.

Since June, the Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment have conducted an aggressive fish and water quality monitoring program, and evaluated point and non-point sources of pollution in affected and potentially affected areas. At the same time, our Agriculture Department has been reviewing farm practices in the Chesapeake watershed.

In addition to our primary focus of protecting the health of our citizens, we also are working hard to better understand Pfiesteria-like organisms, what causes them to become toxic and why they harm people and fish. Our scientists, health officials, water assessment teams and fishery biologists continue to grapple with the many pieces of this puzzle in order to form a complete picture of these outbreaks and what causes them -- causes that will almost certainly indicate a combination of both natural and man-made factors.
At this point, although we still probably have more questions than there are answers, we are extremely fortunate to have the nation’s leading expert on Pfiesteria, Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, consulting with our research team.

In order to respond more effectively to this issue in Maryland, Governor Glendening broadened his action plan. Last month, the Governor: created a Blue Ribbon Citizens Commission, chaired by former Governor and environmentalist Harry Hughes, to meet over the next several weeks and present recommendations for implementing long-term objectives; approved a $2 million emergency appropriation of State funds to help farmers plant the cover crops that help absorb unused crop nutrients; increased State monitoring and inspection of waterways that exhibit characteristics consistent with those in affected watersheds; and provided $500,000 in State funds to educate the public on the safety of Maryland’s seafood market and ensure the health and viability of this important industry.

As Maryland’s war on Pfiesteria captured the national spotlight, surrounding states, as well as Congress and the Clinton Administration joined us in the fight to solve this problem. On September 19, Governor Glendening hosted a six-state summit on Pfiesteria. While each state is dealing with its own set of unique circumstances, the summit participants agreed to: establish a mechanism for exchanging information about Pfiesteria and how we can reduce the number of toxic incidents we are experiencing; provide for immediate notification of outbreaks and sharing of information needed to address the threat to public health threats; establish a regional technical team to work on reducing future outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria; and, to work cooperatively in seeking a federal response to the human and environmental threats posed by Pfiesteria.

Last week our scientific and medical experts, finalized a new protocol for the closing and reopening of rivers affected by Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like events. I am pleased to note that in accordance with that protocol, Governor Glendening announced the reopening of the Pocomoke River on Friday, October 3.

At the federal level, the Governor has spoken personally with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, EPA Administrator Carol Browner and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, as well as members of our Congressional delegation, about the need for a coordinated federal response to a problem that is much bigger than the State of Maryland. We are deeply gratified at the rapid and comprehensive response they are preparing.

Congressmen Hoyer and Gilchrest, and Senators Sarbanes and Mikulski have all demonstrated incredible leadership on this issue. In response to our request, the White House quickly established an interagency working group to develop a coordinated response. Already, the federal government has provided $500,000 in emergency assistance from EPA and NOAA. And an additional $100,000 came from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Federally-supported experts have also been dispatched to help monitor water conditions, analyze data and investigate the health impacts of Pfiesteria. Working with state health officers from seven states, the Centers for Disease Control hosted a conference on Pfiesteria last week in Atlanta. We have also been assured that they are intensifying Pfiesteria research activities, and working with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences, USDA, EPA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. We are also hopeful that the millions of dollars of new money that the House of Representatives has already approved under the leadership of Congressmen Hoyer and Gilchrest, will be made available to CDC to better understand the public health effects of Pfiesteria.

Very little national data or information exists on this toxic organism, and the research required is too massive for any one state to undertake on its own. Federal technical and financial assistance should be provided to citizens in affected and potentially affected areas to reduce incidents of future Pfiesteria-like outbreaks.

One area in which the federal government can play a critical role is expanding national research efforts to help provide our citizens, scientists and public health officials with a greater understanding of this organism. We must not only determine what causes outbreaks of Pfiesteria-like organisms in Maryland and elsewhere; we must also definitively determine what impact Pfiesteria is having on human health, our environment, and on our waterways.

Most urgently, we hope that the federal government will extend our State-only efforts to provide cover crop assistance to our farmers and to support our efforts to market Maryland seafood in view of recent outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria.

We are presented with the challenge of assisting our seafood industry, which has suffered estimated losses of $10 to $15 million thus far this year. While current disaster relief programs do not provide for such circumstances, one cannot argue that this has not been a natural disaster. We also ask that the federal government assist the states in developing improved nutrient management practices and innovative waste management methods, as well as continuing efforts to upgrade sewage treatment facilities.

Finally, we must work cooperatively to aid those farmers, watermen, poultry growers, and private citizens whose livelihoods have been adversely affected by recent outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria. Specifically, federal technical and financial assistance should be joined with State researchers to help our citizens protect the public and environmental health of our State, as well as the livelihoods of those who live and work on the land and in the waters of Maryland.

In closing, I would like to offer a brief personal statement. One of the reasons I felt it was so important for me to be here today, is so that I might share with you how this issue has affected me personally and so many others around me.
I am secretary of natural resources in a state that is proud of its environmental record and works hard to be environmentally responsible. I am secretary of natural resources in a state blessed with an incredible national treasure -- the Chesapeake Bay. I am also secretary of a state whose citizens -- when they see a problem of this magnitude -- expect answers and deserve a solution.

Unable to provide our citizens with the answers they expect and the solutions they deserve, I have, since the beginning of the summer, traveled to the site of every toxic Pfiesteria outbreak in Maryland. I have seen thousands of lesioned fish carcasses floating on top of what we -- just days before -- believed to be a normal, healthy waterway.

I spend long hours behind closed doors with my colleagues and my Governor, helping to make the decisions that change the lives of all Marylanders. Everyday, I talk with watermen who are losing income; tourism representatives who are also suffering financially; members of the media looking for the answers we cannot yet provide; and citizens who are afraid to let their children swim in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

And, with the hope of someday soon finding both the answers, and the solutions, I have members of my own staff working virtually 24-hours a day in a stressful and possibly dangerous environment. Today, seven of those staff members are part of the State’s medical study with breathing problems and short term memory loss.

In Maryland, the health of our citizens, the quality of our lives and the strength of our economy depend on the Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Chairman, we need your help to ensure the health of this national asset, for today and for future generations.

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