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The Chesapeake Bay cleanup bill loved by environmentalists and hated by farmers gets its first test in Washington Wednesday -- though certainly not its last.

S. 1816, introduced by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md, is slated for markup in the Environment and Public Works Committee. Cardin, a member of the committee, said Tuesday he's confident he has enough support there to get the measure to the Senate floor. The question is, what will it look like after the marking-up is done?

Cardin plans to introduce an extensively amended bill - "in the nature of a substitute" - that he said attempts to clarify and ease farmers' concerns about opening the door wide to broader federal regulation of farming and land use.

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Among the "sweeteners" for farmers added to the bill is a provision that no one can be subject to additional federal enforcement if they're in compliance with a state's bay cleanup plan.   Cardin said the revised bill also makes clearer that farmers can get paid to adopt conservation practices on their land under a nutrient-pollution trading program.

Another nod to farmers is a friendly amendment planned by Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., to promote the conversion of poultry waste into energy.

But Cardin acknowledged he's been unable to win over farming groups so far, and he expects some amendments from Republican senators that could generate debate.

The American Farm Bureau, for one, has thrown its support behind a competing farmer-friendly Chesapeake Bay bill put in by Reps. Tim Holden, D-Penn., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.   It emphasizes providing more incentives to farmers to voluntarily curb polluted runoff, and gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture a leading role in the federal cleanup effort.

The bureau's Don Parrish says farmers oppose Cardin's bill because they believe it would give sweeping new authority to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate land use of all types, not just farming.  The bill also broadens the scope for citizen groups to file lawsuits against farms and even state officials for failure to clean up enough, Parrish says.

"You are talking about the footprint of homes, where people live and drive, how people use their land," he said.  "It's a very stringent bill. I'm not sure everybody appreciates how stringent it is."

And while the bill only deals with the six-state bay watershed, the farm bureau lobbyist said opponents worry it could lead to new national water pollution regulations.

Cardin acknowledges farmers remain hostile to his bill, but he contends they're misinformed.

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"There were farmers saying that EPA could start regulating birdbaths with this thing," he said.  On the contrary, he said, the main responsibility for restoring the bay resides with the states, with EPA setting pollution-reduction targets and serving as a referree to determine if states are meeting their obligations.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Doug Siglin said Cardin is savvy enough to realize he needs conservative Democrat and even some Republican votes to get Senate leaders to take up the bill.  With "a ton of amendments" already filed, Siglin says he expects a much-changed bill to emerge from the committee, but one that he's confident should still give added impetus to the long-running bay restoration.

Cardin says the revised bill, which you can read here, now represents the "collective wisdom" of all the stakeholder interests in the six-state watershed.   While national farm groups still want to strip some of EPA's existing authority to regulate agriculture, Cardin said, he's not willing to "go backward."

"The bill is I think a major step forward for the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.

Clearing the Senate, though, will just be one step toward becoming law.  In the House, Rep. Elijah  Cummings, D-Md., has introduced a bill, HR 3852, mirroring Cardin's, which now must face competition from the Holden-Goodlatte camp.

(AP Photo)

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