Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley yesterday urged a Senate panel to eliminate penalties for farmers who fail to comply with a landmark law regulating their use of fertilizers, following through on a campaign promise by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to revisit the regulations.

The Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 was approved after hundreds of thousands of fish died in Eastern Shore rivers and scientists blamed nutrient pollution for fueling growth of a toxic algae. To limit agricultural runoff, the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, the law required farmers to carefully calibrate the amount of manure and other fertilizers they spread on farmland

But the science that blamed farm runoff for the kills was inconclusive, Riley told a Senate committee yesterday. "I told Governor [Parris N.] Glendening then I thought that more research was the answer. Let them take the problem, research it, develop a solution and the farmers would embrace it."

Instead, Riley said, the administration urged penalties of up to $2,500 a day against farmers who didn't comply with the new law.

"That was the beginning of the farmers being turned off," Riley told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, urging members to eliminate the provisions of the act dealing with penalties and inspectors' right to access farms. "Their policy was just about as anti-agriculture as you could be."

Environmentalists, however, protested any weakening of the law and pointed out that nearly 80 percent of farms in Maryland are working to comply. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has declined to fine or punish the remaining 20 percent that have not, largely because there are not enough state agricultural extension agents and private consultants to help farmers develop nutrient management plans.

"By removing fines and eliminating site visits, you're already making it a voluntary program," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We should be moving forward with these plans, not backwards."

During the campaign, Ehrlich told farmers that the Glendening administration had "demonized" them "for causing the pfiesteria outbreak."

A spokesman for Ehrlich at the time said he had no intention of repealing the regulations, but offered to consider adjustments to the regulations that would help farmers comply.

Yesterday, Riley defended a bill that would suspend enforcement of the nutrient management law and not force farmers to give inspectors access to their properties.

"We need to find a way to reach compliance in a way that's more comfortable to the farming community," Riley said. "Let's give them an opportunity to sit down and express their views and let the department of agriculture work with them."

State officials estimate that once the plans are in place, they will prevent the flow of nearly 5 million pounds of nitrogen and 340,000 pounds of phosphorus into the bay and its tributaries.

"Farmers are not environmental activists, but they are active environmentalists," Riley said. "Soil and water are the very basis of their income."