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Agriculture should pay for its own pollution

What industry gets a significant discount on property taxes funded by other taxpayers? Can you think of a business the price of whose products is supported by the treasury? Or a business that is paid from taxpayer funds not to make its products? Wouldn't you like to have a business that has access to cheap, guaranteed loans or casualty insurance subsidized by taxpayers?

The only industry I know of that has available all of these entitlements is agriculture.

Recently, the agriculture industry has profited from another publicly financed benefit. Unlike other industries that are required to reduce their pollution largely at their own expense, farmers receive millions in government funds each year to implement pollution-reduction measures.

Now the Maryland Department of Agriculture has a new series of steps that will continue transferring from agriculture to the taxpayers the costs of pollution cleanup. Most other Chesapeake Bay states are developing similar programs.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required bay states to plan to meet pollution-reduction targets by 2025. Maryland is upgrading sewage plants, limiting new septic systems, limiting homeowners' use of fertilizer, requiring residents to pay to clean up storm water runoff, and taking other measures that dearly cost homeowners, businesses and local governments. But Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland Department of Agriculture have largely given agriculture a free pass.

As a result, you can expect that you and I will pay for cleaning up agriculture's pollution. Consider these three initiatives by the Department of Agriculture:

•The MDA recently signed off on regulations that will continue to allow farmers to spread manure on fields in the winter through 2016. Winter fields don't absorb nutrients, and much runs off the ground in the rains and snows. The regulations also allow farmers to spread far more manure than their crops can absorb.

•By adopting practices like planting cover crops, farmers can reduce the level of pollution flowing into waterways at a much lower cost per unit of pollution than many businesses and local governments would need to spend to reduce a similar amount from sewage plants, storm water systems, or factories. The MDA is considering policies that would enable farmers to sell to businesses and governments "credits" for pollution reductions that would allow the buyers to meet their pollution-reduction goals at a lower cost. The rules would allow farmers to "self-certify" that they achieved the requisite pollution reductions and their operations would be rarely, if ever, inspected. They could claim credit for measures purportedly implemented years in the past and for years after the practice has ceased to be effective. They may even be able to sell credits resulting from taxpayer-funded practices.

•Finally, policymakers are now considering a program called "Agricultural Certainty" that would grant farmers immunity from new environmental rules that would otherwise apply to them. The principal condition to qualify for immunity would be that a farmer certify he has met certain minimal pollution-reduction criteria. Again, compliance would rarely, if ever, subject to verification or inspection. Immunity would last 10 years — well beyond 2017, when it is likely that the states and the EPA, in response to a midway check on pollution reduction efforts, may require new actions.

Many farmers are responsible stewards of the land and water. Many take common-sense pollution control measures with no government subsidies. It would never occur to most to sell to others the right to pollute their rivers or to seek immunity from responsibility to protect our rivers.

Destructive programs like selling the right to pollute and immunity from anti-pollution rules are advanced by lobbyists and lawyers on behalf of the Maryland Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau wraps itself in the plaid flannel shirts of family farmers while it advances the avaricious interests of big corporate agriculture.

The O'Malley administration has a decent environmental record. But the free pass it has given agriculture, and particularly the poultry industry, is inconsistent with its treatment of towns, counties and industries such as electric generators and developers.

In trying to explain such inconsistent treatment, some have commented on the governor's close connections with the poultry industry. Others have speculated on his strategy to win farm states in the 2016 presidential primaries.

Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: Providing a pollution pass to agriculture means we taxpayers will pay to clean up agriculture's pollution, and restoration of our rivers will be threatened.

This isn't fair. Individuals and other industries are doing their part; farmers and corporate agriculture should too. Our lame-duck administration should require agriculture, like other industries, to pay to reduce its own pollution. Enough is enough.

Bob Gallagher is founder and board chairman of West/Rhode Riverkeeper Inc. and a member of the board of the Maryland league of Conservation Voters. His email is riverkeeper113@verizon.net.

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