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Middle ground on phosphorus

Speaking on the Eastern Shore three months ago, then-Gov.-elect Larry Hogan described pending regulations limiting phosphorus pollution from poultry manure as "devastating" to farmers and vowed that he had a "few tricks up his sleeve" to stop them. He got big cheers in Wicomico County that day and for weeks continued to rail against his predecessor's "11th hour" effort to get those requirements on the books — and he quickly withdrew them the day he took office.

Who could have predicted that the "few tricks" he had in mind included eventually agreeing to keep the regulations largely intact, albeit potentially delayed up to an additional two years?

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Yet that's what happened this week as lawmakers and Governor Hogan committed to a compromise that will ultimately impose the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool requirements limiting how much animal waste farmers can spread as an inexpensive fertilizer on fields already saturated with the nutrient. This has long been a high priority for the environmental community as phosphorus pollution from farm fields has long been a major, if inadequately-regulated, contributor to algae blooms and oxygen-deprived "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

That's quite a reversal from December but not entirely unexpected. The governor had already given considerable ground on the issue by proposing his own set of phosphorus regulations, the chief criticism of which was that they included an "off ramp" that might allow them to be perpetually delayed. The compromise keeps to the O'Malley administration's seven-year timetable with the possibility of two one-year extensions that could delay the rules until no later than 2024.

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Frankly, it's still awfully generous to this specific group of polluters, particularly given that the financial hardship facing farmers has been estimated at as little as $22.5 million (and that's spread over years). It's hard to imagine state regulators being so generous with others who have been found to be poisoning local waters and endangering human health whether the contaminants come from the end of a industrial pipe or the edge of one's driveway. (It might go something like this: "OK, Exxon, you're going to have to clean up that leaking underground tank as soon as today's third graders graduate from high school.")

What makes this deal most notable is not simply that the Choptank or Nanticoke rivers or other waterways on the poultry-packed Delmarva peninsula might be spared thousands of tons of chicken manure pouring in from farm fields, but that Governor Hogan can be persuaded by facts. That's no small thing given how so many in his party's national leadership have become so firmly science-averse. And it also suggests that Mr. Hogan was serious when he pledged that he cared about the welfare of the Chesapeake Bay (even though he usually made that claim as he was simultaneously attacking the "rain tax" or some other environmental cause or just complaining about his predecessor's fondness for regulatory solutions).

No doubt there are some Democrats in the State House who are actually disappointed to find Mr. Hogan willing to bend on this high-profile issue rather than play to his political base, which, incidentally, can't be all that pleased by this shift. How much easier would it be to thwart a Republican governor if he appeared unflinchingly opposed to cleaning up Maryland's most treasured natural resource? Wasn't this the same guy who turned a piddling fee on stormwater runoff pollution into a "rain tax" hysteria? The man who says he wants to roll back regulations?

Mr. Hogan appears ready to make similar compromises on his budget and on education funding. It might be too early to characterize him as a pragmatist — after just two months in office, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the last Republican in the job, still seemed pretty reasonable, too — but it's clear he's not the extremist-in-centrist-clothing that some tried to paint him prior to election day. We wouldn't want to get too carried away with exaltations quite yet, of course. The new phosphorus rules still amount to a compromise of a compromise of a compromise, and not necessarily "one of the most important steps forward in environmental policy in the last decade," as a Hogan spokesman claims — at least not when 2022 is such a long way off. Rather, it's a modest victory for the cause of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, for Mr. Hogan and for lawmakers, as well as a lesson in how a politically divided government in Annapolis can still function properly.

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