We have taxed nearly every Marylander to pay for significant nutrient removal at wastewater treatment plants through the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fee, known as the flush tax, amounting to $60 per year for each household. Gov. Martin O'Malley also supported the so-called "rain tax" to manage urban storm water pollution. But when it comes to agriculture, the polluter-pays concept is discarded, and agriculture is instead offered hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to do what it ought to be already doing to reduce pollution runoff. Why is Governor O'Malley giving the bay's biggest polluters a free ride on the backs of taxpayers and their own contract growers and farmers?
Last month, the governor threatened to veto the Poultry Fair Share Act, which would stop the free ride the chicken industry currently enjoys. The legislation calls for a 5-cent per bird fee on any Maryland company that places chickens with contract growers. The tax would be used to plant cover crops to soak up the excess pollutants from the millions of pounds of chicken manure dumped on farmland. Currently, there are four major poultry companies located on the state's Eastern Shore that own over 300 million birds that contribute to the billion and a half pounds of chicken manure every year on the Delmarva Peninsula. Isn't it time to stop the massive pollution caused by the chicken industry and other intensive agricultural operations and make them pay their fair share?
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, millions of pounds of nutrients and millions of tons of sediment pour off of farmland each year with devastating impacts to the bay. These pollutants cause dead zones, fish kills and human and fish diseases, and they destroy oyster farms.
Maryland agriculture covers nearly 25 percent of the landmass feeding into the bay and contributes more runoff pollution to the bay than any other source. Growing crops such as corn and soybeans requires huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, along with phosphorus. The crops do not use all of these nutrients, and much of what is not taken up winds up in our creeks and streams or seeps into groundwater where it can contaminate drinking water and end up in the bay. When you add millions of pounds of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden chicken manure to farmland, the problem is exacerbated. The Delmarva Peninsula has some of the greatest concentrations of broiler chickens in the country, and corn and other grains must be grown to feed them.
The withdrawal in November by the O'Malley Administration of science-based regulations to prevent farmers from dumping phosphorus- and nitrogen-laden chicken and other manures on farm fields already saturated with phosphorus is another example of the political capture of our elected officials.
A recent Baltimore Sun article documented that more than four years after Maryland first moved to regulate its largest poultry and livestock operations, nearly 30 percent, or 169 operations, still do not have required state permits mandating measures to control polluted runoff. Those that do are not properly inspected, and enforcement lags. These are the largest poultry and other animal manure producers in the state and some of the largest in the country.
In a recent Sun op-ed, law Professor Rena Steinzor wrote that Maryland's environmental agency waived more than $400,000 in legally mandated fees in 2013 for 540 farms — industrial-style chicken farms mostly — giving them a free ride despite these farms producing 650 million pounds of manure annually. This fee has not been collected since it was instituted four years ago, even though the Maryland Department of the Environment states that it does not have sufficient personnel and funds to process or enforce regulations as required.
It's time for the free ride for polluting factory farms to end in Maryland. Governor O'Malley should be standing up for taxpayers, the bay and Maryland contract growers — not the chicken industry.
Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch in Washington D.C. Julie Gouldener is the Maryland organizer of Food & Water Watch. Their emails are firstname.lastname@example.org and Jgouldener@fwwatch.org.
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