— Farmers complained Wednesday to a sympathetic audience in Congress that the Environmental Protection Agency's "pollution diet" for restoring the Chesapeake Bay is based on flawed science and threatens to drive growers out of business with burdensome and unnecessary regulations.
Appearing before a House agriculture subcommittee, spokesmen for regional and national farm groups accused the Obama administration of pressing bay states to crack down on their poultry and livestock farms when some research indicates that farmers have voluntarily reduced their pollution of the Chesapeake.
House members of both parties on the panel joined in, grilling and chastising Deputy EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe for pressing ahead with the bay cleanup plan in the face of such criticism and a lawsuit challenging the agency's legal authority.
"You people have created a hornet's nest out there," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, who accused the EPA of issuing regulations in response to environmental groups' lawsuits without consulting farmers and other affected parties.
Peterson, the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the full House Agriculture Committee, recalled that he had helped get $250 million in federal funds earmarked to help bay-area farmers pay for controlling pollution from their fields. But now, he warned, "maybe we'll take our money back, and EPA can go find the money from the [Chesapeake] Bay Foundation — or whoever these other people are — to fix this."
The Agriculture Committee lacks any official say over the EPA, but one of its members, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, persuaded the Republican-dominated House to vote to block the agency from spending any funds on enforcing the bay pollution diet for at least the next six months. The Senate has not agreed to that or other spending cuts proposed by the House.
"What gives you the authority to threaten the state if they don't submit an action … to your satisfaction?" the Virginia lawmaker asked.
Perciasepe, a former Maryland secretary of the environment, defended the agency's actions while acknowledging that he and other EPA officials could be doing more to consult with farmers and other groups. He noted that the federal Clean Water Act requires states to clean their polluted waters and empowers the federal government to step in if they do not.
Others questioned the computer model the EPA used to determine the pollution reductions needed to restore the bay. They said the EPA had relied on faulty information about farming in the 64,000-square-mile watershed and had not properly credited what farmers have done so far.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released Tuesday found that conservation measures adopted by farmers have roughly halved the sediment washing off their fields and reduced the loss of water-fouling nitrogen and phosphorus by 40 percent. Dave White, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the panel those figures reflect only what's been done through 2006, and that more recent information indicated that pollution has been further reduced in the past five years by another 15 percent to 20 percent.
Perciasepe said the EPA will seek an independent scientific review of its computer model. He also suggested that the USDA study essentially agrees with his agency's view that while the bay is getting cleaner, more needs to be done.
The USDA study indicated that 80 percent of croplands in the bay region need further conservation measures to curb pollution. White said his agency's findings suggest that with continued federal aid for farmers, "We can do this."
However, Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said farmers in his state fear that EPA-mandated regulations could drive them off their land. Shaffer is also a director of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA's authority to enforce the pollution diet. He said the EPA's action on the Chesapeake has nationwide significance because it is being applied to other degraded waters, such as the Mississippi River.
Lynne Hoot, director of a Maryland grain growers association, suggested that the state's farmers are comfortable with what they're being asked to do over the next couple of years but worry about what might come after that. The EPA is pressing states to assign cleanup tasks community by community by the end of the year, which she contended was an unrealistically short time for such an involved process.
"The country is watching us. We want to prove agriculture can do what is necessary," Hoot said, as long as it is "reasonable" and "science-based."
Environmentalists were not invited to testify, but a few groups submitted written comments. The Choose Clean Water Coalition, for instance, argued that delaying action on the pollution diet would worsen the economic harm already done to industries such as tourism and seafood by the Chesapeake's poor water quality and depleted fisheries.