Mr. Hogan picks the wrong 'first fight'

Fighting phosphorus rules not only bad for Chesapeake Bay, it's bad for Larry Hogan

When farmers' own records show they are spreading far more phosphorus on their fields than is needed to fertilize their crops and studies have demonstrated conclusively that nutrient runoff from those same fields is killing the Chesapeake Bay, attention must be paid. Yet Maryland's incoming governor appears dead set against fixing that situation.

Earlier this month, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan announced that rescinding the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool regulations approved by O'Malley administration at the 11th hour after years of fits and starts would be his "first fight" in office. He called them "politically motivated" and told Eastern Shore farmers it was an effort to put them "out of business, destroy your way of life … decimate your entire industry."

Yet within hours of Mr. Hogan's speech, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report showing shore farmers spread three times more phosphorus-laden chicken manure on their fields than what is needed. Given that such lands are often already saturated with phosphorus from decades of such practices, it should come as no surprise that local waterways are chock full of it too, and it's causing excess algae growth and contributing to "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay.

We take no relish in this. We appreciate that curbing that practice — chiefly finding other ways to both dispose of poultry litter and fertilize crops — will be a financial burden for farmers. One recent study estimated that cost at as much as $53 million over the next six years. But even under that worst possible scenario, the cost is chump change compared to the multi-billion-dollar value of a healthier Chesapeake Bay.

If Mr. Hogan can devise a better way to reduce phosphorus, he is welcome to propose it. But facts are facts. Phosphorus is a serious problem, and agriculture is not some minor contributor. Whatever he cares to devise, it needs to produce the same outcome — substantially less phosphorus from chicken waste polluting Maryland's streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay. And it will need to apply those restrictions on a case by case basis as there are great variations in how individual tracts of land can handle additional phosphorus — which is exactly what the PMT does.

Frankly, it's difficult not to see opposition to this policy as politically motivated (as we did when Gov. Martin O'Malley withdrew the rules — twice). Mr. Hogan is very popular on the Eastern Shore, and this would seem to suit his campaign narrative to get government "off the backs" of business. But sparing a relatively small number of polluters to jeopardize a far greater number of businesses from watermen to boatyards, the tourism industry to those who make a living selling waterfront real estate, all of whom depend on a clean Chesapeake Bay, strikes us as bad for business.

The incoming governor would be far better off looking to help farmers and the poultry industry find alternative ways to dispose of chicken waste or recover the added costs involved than in sabotaging this state's greatest natural resource. Why take such a fight to the General Assembly? Why jeopardize what Mr. Hogan has claimed is his raison d'etre — reducing state spending and cutting taxes? Why exhaust one's political capital on manure?

Between this decision and his insistence that he will seek the repeal of the stormwater sediment fee or "rain tax," Mr. Hogan appears, at best, indifferent to the plight of the Chesapeake Bay. Even Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was willing to challenge his GOP base by proposing a statewide "flush tax" to upgrade sewage treatment plants and lower excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from that particular source of waste. And with Mr. Hogan likely to trim conservation programs like Program Open Space (as Mr. Ehrlich did before him) in the next budget, he risks establishing himself in a few short months as Maryland's worst environmental steward in a generation — or two or three.

Saving the Chesapeake Bay is not some fringe political cause. In Maryland, home of blue crabs, oysters and rockfish, sailing and sightseeing, it is gospel. We can appreciate how tempting it might be for a political conservative to side with agriculture against government. But that's not really the issue at all. The real choice is whether this state wants to protect the nation's largest estuary for the benefit of current and future residents. This is the wrong fight at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

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