Opinion: Farm Lobby Fights Regs, Regulators Fail to Monitor, Pollution Goes On

Environmental Commentary by Eric V. Schaeffer

Over the last three decades, there have been many plans and lots of rhetoric about saving the Chesapeake Bay.

But let’s look at the facts, as measured by water quality monitoring. Water pollution into the Bay from sewage treatment plants has decreased, as has the nitrogen oxide air pollution from power plants and vehicles that contributes to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the nation’s largest estuary.

But the Chesapeake Bay remains in perilous condition. Why? Because runoff pollution from urban and agricultural areas is not under control. While some cities and counties are coming to grips with their responsibilities and are imposing fees to build systems to reduce runoff pollution, the farm industry continues to fight fiercely against all regulations and fees.

Worse, the farm lobby has convinced many policy makers that farmers should not have to do anything more. They claim that the largely voluntary, taxpayer-supported programs that exist today to reduce farm runoff are highly successful.

Our organization, the Environmental Integrity Project, decided to conduct a reality check on these claims. We released a report, “Poultry’s Phosphorus Problem,” that analyzed a decade of water quality monitoring data from eight rivers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that are surrounded by 1,339 chicken farms that generate more than a billion pounds of manure a year. The vast majority of this manure is spread on fields as fertilizer. It contains about 30 million pounds of phosphate, most of which runs off to pollute streams.

Our report concluded that – despite the farm lobby’s assertions—phosphorus pollution levels on the Eastern Shore have shown no improvement over the last decade, and in fact have become worse in three rivers: the Nanticoke, the Sassafras, and the Transquaking, according to state water quality monitoring data. Excessive phosphorus feeds algal blooms that suck oxygen out of the water and suffocate fish and crabs.

A second report we released, “Murky Waters,” demonstrates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be over-estimating reductions in farm pollution in the models it uses to calculate progress as part of its plan for cleaning up the Bay (also called the Bay pollution “diet” or Total Maximum Daily Load).

The problem is that neither the EPA nor the states monitor streams next to farms enough to determine the real effectiveness of pollution controls, such as cover crops planted to absorb excess fertilizer. The Bay region states need more and better stream monitoring near farms. And the states must require the agricultural industry to be more conservative in its application of fertilizer and manure on fields.

A lack of accountability for agricultural pollution is a problem across the watershed. This is especially true in Pennsylvania, which is the source of almost half of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay. The EPA’s June evaluation of Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce Bay pollution concluded that the federal agency will have to increase its oversight over farm pollution in Pennsylvania because the state failed to achieve its two-year “milestone” targets for reducing nitrogen and sediment runoff from farms. The EPA also criticized Delaware for failing to meet its “milestone” targets for cutting nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agriculture.

Maryland needs to step up its efforts to control poultry industry waste on the Eastern Shore, as our recent reports concluded. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration must stop delaying long-promised manure management regulations (called the “Phosphorus Management Tool”) that are being fought by the poultry industry — but are badly needed to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The response to our reports from the agriculture industry has been unfortunate. The director of Maryland Farm Bureau attacked us as an “out-of-state environmental industry” that should “pack up and move on.”

We understand that farmers work hard for a living and that most are good environmental stewards. We agree that the public should help finance the cost of projects to control pollution from farms. But surely the public also has a right to ask how well these projects are working.

The agricultural economy is critical to the whole Chesapeake Bay region. But the Farm Bureau’s rejection of water quality monitoring data, and relentless portrayal of anyone who questions current practices as “outsiders” hostile to farming, is irresponsible and one of the greatest obstacles to the cleanup of our region’s most treasured natural resource.

Eric V. Schaeffer is Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., and former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement.

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