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Keeping secrets on the farm

Imagine that you live near an industry that you suspect pollutes a river, a bunch of sewage treatment plants perhaps. You ask state government for records of how the plants have been regulated and what standards they must meet.

Although the agency is required to provide those public documents, officials hem and haw and, unbeknownst to you, reach out to a trade group that then files a legal challenge to stop the release of information. A local judge agrees to issue a temporary restraining order.

Now instead of sewage plants, think farms, and that's the frustrating situation confronting environmental groups in Worcester County who got the runaround from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. It appears the agency has a greater allegiance to the Maryland Farm Bureau and the poultry industry than to protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

At issue are nutrient management plans — the mandatory restrictions drawn up for individual farms that are meant to limit how much nitrogen and phosphorus run off from the land. Most significantly, it involves restrictions on the use of fertilizers, particularly animal waste.

These plans are at the core of the controversial federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance against Perdue Farms and a Worcester County farmer who raises chickens. Readers may recall that a legal clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law filed the action (and that the school's involvement drew considerable ire from some lawmakers).

Are other farmers in compliance with their plans? What restrictions are in place? It was natural that the Waterkeeper Alliance and others would want to know in light of the lawsuit.

It's bad enough that under a 2009 Anne Arundel County judge's ruling, such plans are kept confidential (if released, the farmers' names are blacked out). But for the state agricultural officials to delay release of information the public is entitled to see for months and then to actively work with the bureau to prevent the public release altogether doesn't pass the — pardon another manure reference — sniff test.

Farmers may fear that the reports could lead to further litigation, but it's hard to see how those in compliance have much to worry about. Concerns about trade secrets (not wanting competitors to know a crop rotation plan, for instance) are not especially compelling either. Plans covering larger farms regulated under federal law must be fully disclosed. So must similar documentation in neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Again, consider the reaction if this dispute had involved discharge permits from sewage plants. Surely, no one would tolerate keeping their regulatory requirements hidden.

And those who think farms and sewer plants aren't comparable situations ought to take a second look: A U.S. Geological Survey report issued just this week shows that nitrogen levels in rivers like the Eastern Shore's Choptank are increasing where farms remain the dominant land use.

Make no mistake, nobody wants farmers to be treated as criminals, but they should not be held exempt from pollution laws either. The public has a right to know whether the farmer next door, down the street or in the next county is fouling the water in violation of law. If Gov. Martin O'Malley wants voters to believe he's an advocate for a cleaner environment this November, he ought to make sure his agencies are looking beyond the narrow interests of one vocal constituency and working toward the common goal of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.

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