Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Editorial

Regulating farms with certainty

The concept behind the proposed Maryland Agriculture Certainty Program is sound. Farmers would voluntarily agree to meet relatively high standards for pollution runoff and hire third-party inspectors to verify the results. In return, they would be spared from new regulations for 10 years.

In a business that is fraught with uncertainty from droughts and floods, rising and falling commodity prices and boom or bust crop yields, the appeal of predictability is clear enough. The model is not unlike the discharge permit of some manufacturers or sewage treatment plants — a kind of contract between regulators and polluters.

But the bill currently being considered in the state Senate has raised a great many concerns — too many to believe any reasonable compromise can be achieved during this legislative session. Far better for it to be done correctly than hastily, particularly when so much is at stake, and that's especially true for farmers.

In trying to help, lawmakers might actually hurt the majority of farmers. For instance, should some farmers get a decade-long exemption from certain future pollution standards, it's entirely possible, even likely, that their peers will be required to do far more to offset that lack of participation somewhere down the road.

And the unintended consequences are not even restricted to farmers. Across the state, Marylanders are facing tougher water pollution standards. Communities are being forced to do more to control storm water runoff, reduce pollution, raise taxes and control growth.

It's all part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-imposed Chesapeake Bay pollution diet (known as TMDL, for total maximum daily load) that primarily seeks to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, the excess nutrients that are slowly strangling the nation's largest estuary. Agriculture plays a significant role in that effort, as it is the single largest source of pollution and sediment in the watershed.

The certainty bill has split the environmental community. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation endorses it and points to a similar measure that passed last year in Virginia and one under consideration in Delaware. Foundation officials argue that the standards that would be imposed on participating farmers are tough and based on what's expected by 2025. In essence, they point out, the effort speeds up the timetable for compliance by a decade.

But others in the environmental community are doubtful, particularly as new EPA standards are expected to be developed in just four years. There have also been serious questions raised about oversight, accountability and transparency, the certification of inspectors, and the lengthy timetable (even discharge permits are generally limited to five years).

Meanwhile, state officials are already in the midst of developing regulations that would allow farmers to trade pollution credits, which would also depend on meeting specific nutrient targets and providing independent verification. It would be far more prudent to wait and see how a certainty program might dovetail with that.

That lawmakers are anxious to rush to the aid of farmers is no surprise. Witness the recent decision in the House of Delegates to earmark $300,000 in the state budget to potentially help offset the legal bills of Berlin chicken farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson, who were sued by the Waterkeeper Alliance for allegedly polluting a local waterway. The Hudsons won the case, and they and co-defendant Perdue Farms are seeking $3 million in legal fees from the plaintiffs.

Supporters argue that the state played a role in the matter (the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic represented the Waterkeeper Alliance), but the precedent of requiring taxpayers to foot the bill for a private civil suit is outrageous. Either the litigation was frivolous — in which case Waterkeeper Alliance should pay the damages (as provided for under law and pending in federal court) — or it was not and nobody should be reimbursed. Lawmakers who feel strongly that some injustice was perpetrated ought to pull out their own checkbooks and donate to the Hudsons' defense fund.

For too long, the agriculture community has grown accustomed to the pampering of voluntary pollution restrictions and government grants and loans — the more carrot, less stick approach. Any other small business owner would envy the generosity, yet many farmers continue to regard themselves as victims of a war on rural Maryland.

That's not to suggest that Annapolis ought to be tougher on or even indifferent to farmers or farming. Far from it. But what's needed is a balanced approach that considers not just the benefits to be offered farmers but the sacrifices expected from the rest of us. If the General Assembly wants to restore the Chesapeake Bay, it's not just tough love but smart love that's required. That much is certain.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    • Trade you oil for chicken manure
      Trade you oil for chicken manure

      I know people are worried that opening up the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling would pose a risk of a possible oil spill ("Getting the off-shore shaft," Jan. 28). In fact, it's inevitable that there will be some oil spilled and some environmental damage done. That's not pessimism, that's...

    • A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management
      A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management

      From the time I graduated from college and returned to the farm, I have been dealing with government regulations, environmental extremists and animal rights activists.

    • Larry Hogan's big fish story
      Larry Hogan's big fish story

      One expects a certain amount of bluster and prevarication from politicians. It's all part of telling an audience whatever they want to hear. As H.L. Mencken once noted, "if a politician observed he had cannibals among his constituents, he'd promise them missionaries for dinner."

    • Could O'Malley's cover crop program be increasing animal waste in the bay?
      Could O'Malley's cover crop program be increasing animal waste in the bay?

      Gov. Martin O'Malley's green agenda really is green ("O'Malley rushes to propose new pollution rules," Nov. 14). Green as the goose waste that pours directly into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, mostly during the waterfowl season. And, it's primarily fed by Mr. O'Malley's very own cover...

    • O'Malley sticks it to farmers on his way out the door
      O'Malley sticks it to farmers on his way out the door

      On behalf of 36,000 Maryland Farm Bureau families, I have to disagree with your editorial on the issue of the new phosphorus rules ("Phosphorus rules, finally," Nov. 18). Gov. Martin O'Malley did not get it right. In fact, this is effectively just one last tax increase he is trying to force...

    • What about Pa. manure?
      What about Pa. manure?

      On an almost recurring basis lately, The Sun has devoted itself to bringing to everyone's attention the Eastern Shore poultry industry's polluted runoff flowing into the Chesapeake Bay ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13). Attention should be directed to the Amish...

    • Hogan can protect farms and open space
      Hogan can protect farms and open space

      Congratulations to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on his inauguration. Mr. Hogan ran a terrific campaign, and we all look forward to his leadership on one of the most important roles, safeguarding the lands and waters of this beautiful state.

    • New rules needed to protect Eastern Shore waterways
      New rules needed to protect Eastern Shore waterways

      After talking about it for years, Maryland finally has proposed long-overdue regulations on phosphorous pollution from animal manure in the Chesapeake Bay ("Hogan vows to fight farm pollution rules," Dec. 8).