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Keystone of the Bay Cleanup Plan


Pennsylvania has been a convenient whipping boy for Maryland and Virginia in excusing setbacks in the massive cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River feeds the Upper Bay from Pennsylvania, the repository of that state's water pollution and a clear marker of its environmental progress. TC You can't blame downstream for what comes in upstream: that's been the alibi.

But Pennsylvania's passage of a bill mandating controls on farm runoff pollution -- chemical fertilizers and manure that nourish burgeoning blooms of harmful algae -- sends a clear challenge for other states to follow suit. Keystone State farmers with more than a ton of livestock per acre have to contain these nutrient/pollutants on their land.

The Maryland legislature's recent refusal to impose even voluntary restrictions on agricultural pollution is a sharp rebuke to its pro-bay rhetoric. The proposed Maryland legislation began with required controls, was watered down to promote voluntary actions, and then was killed.

Unlike Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, Maryland's chief executive has fought vigorously against mandatory farmland pollution controls. William Donald Schaefer, attuned to the power of the agriculture lobby, insists that voluntary nutrient controls are working well on Maryland farms.

Surprisingly, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been ambivalent about mandatory farm nutrient runoff standards, at least in Maryland. The nonprofit conservation group says it believes in mandatory programs, yet it backed voluntary limits in Maryland while praising current farmer efforts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says otherwise. It estimates that half the nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the bay can still be traced to excess manure and chemicals on cropland. While there are other sources, farmland remains the single largest unmanaged polluter.

Why is the Maryland government willing to impose costly air and water anti-pollution measures on industry, motorists, households and municipalities, while continuing to excuse farmers?

"If we acted just one-fifth as aggressively with agriculture as we did with wastewater treatment plants, we would really be turning the corner on the bay," observed Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, the environmental activist who sponsored the defeated Maryland bill.

While a lot of farmers are trying to use good runoff control practices, many also just ignore the problem or refuse to pay for needed measures, such as manure pits and soil erosion containment. Farmers have long known about the runoff problem and ways to prevent it; it's no longer a matter of education. Those that willfully pollute on the farm should be subject to laws and sanctions, just as are other environmental violators.

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