Frosh defends "rain tax," farm phosphorus regulations

Speaking out: Frosh defends "rain tax" and farm rules Hogan has vowed to repeal or block.

Stressing he doesn't intend to "park" his beliefs at the door, incoming Attorney General Brian E. Frosh spoke up Thursday in defense of two controversial environmental initiatives that Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has vowed to repeal or block.

Frosh, addressing a luncheon at the University of Maryland law school in Baltimore, argued that the storm-water management fees levied on property owners in the state's largest communities are needed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Likewise, he supported regulations Gov. Martin O'Malley has put forward to reduce pollution from many farms on the Eastern Shore. Frosh said they're aimed at dealing with a leading source of the bay's decline.

Hogan, a Republican, pledged when he ran to repeal the storm-water fees, which he and other critics deride as a "rain tax."  He also promised to fight the "phosphorus management" rules put forward by O'Malley, which would curtail the use of animal manure from the Shore's many chicken farms to fertilize crop fields.

Frosh is a Democrat who helped write and pass many environmental bills while representing Montgomery County in the General Assembly.  He voted for the storm-water fee law in 2012, and has spoken out repeatedly over the years about the need to curtail polluted runoff from farms, especially the large-scale chicken growing operations on the Shore.

In his lunchtime talk, as he did in a recent Baltimore Sun interview, Frosh stressed that he hopes to find common ground with Hogan and work cooperatively, but doesn't intend to shrink from speaking out when he feels it warranted. And he said said environmental enforcement would be a priority when he takes office next month.

"I don't expect to agree with the governor on every issue, but I'm the attorney for the governor ..," he said. In that role, he explained, it'll be his and his staff's job to represent the interests of the governor and his departments and agencies. 

But Frosh added: "It doesn't mean I have to check my thoughts, beliefs and opinions at the door."

And on matters of enforcing the state's environmental laws and regulations, he said, "I think we'll be able to agree that people who break the law ought to pay a price for it."

Frosh acknowledged that many people have a hard time understanding the need for the storm-water fees, and he credited opponents with public-relations savvy for ridiculing them as a tax on rain.

"The cost and inconvenience [of the fee] is easy to see," he said. "The benefits are less obvious, but they outweigh the costs."

Lawmakers mandated fees be collected by the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore city to pay for projects to reduce runoff from urban and suburban lands, a significant and growing source of bay pollution.

On the proposed farm regulations, Frosh said they are "something that really has to be done." He said pollution from Shore farm fields that have been overfertilized with phosphorus-rich chicken manure is "an enormous problem."

Farmers and the poultry industry have complained that restrictions on use of animal manure to fertilize fields are unnecessary and costly. A Salisbury University study projected farmers having to buy alternative fertilizer and dispose of their manure elsewhere could cost $22 million over six years.  While the rules are likely to be final before Hogan takes office next month, he said he'll do what he can to keep them from being carried out, saying he believes farmers' warnings they'll be driven out of business.

Frosh said he sympathizes with farmers, adding he realizes it's a difficult business and "any additional cost is a burden" and potentially one that could put them out of business. 

"It's important for us in this state to ensure their continued well-being," he said of farmers. "We don't want to stop people from growing soybeans and corn and end up having to grow houses. That's not good for the bay, either."

But Frosh said he believed that action is required, asserting farms are contributing 60 percent of the phosphorus pollution in the bay. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that farms are the source of 58 percent of the phosphorus getting into the water across the entire six-state bay watershed.  Phosphorus and another nutrient, nitrogen, cause algae blooms and "dead zones" in the bay.)  

The phosphorus regulation, Frosh concluded, "is a good place to begin" addressing the problem.

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