Barley cover crop growing on Eastern Shore
(Glenn Fawcett, 2008)

Supporters and critics of legislation that would grant farmers a 10-year reprieve from new environmental regulations squared off before a House committee Tuesday, with much of the debate focused on the bill's prohibition on public disclosure about those granted the deferral.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the bill's chief sponsor, told the House Environmental Matters Committee that many farmers have to invest in new equipment and facilities to comply with recently adopted state regulations aimed at reducing fertilizer washing off farms into the Chesapeake Bay. The Charles County Democrat, himself a farmer, said growers "have to have some certainty" that they won't be asked again in a few years to make more costly changes in their operations.


Farm group representatives, O'Malley administration officials and other  supporters said that the legislation, SB1029, offers a way to speed long-running efforts to clean up the bay.  To qualify for the deferral from new rules, farmers would have to voluntarily agree to pollution control efforts on their farms beyond what they're now required to do, proponents say.

"We have never had a bar for nutrient (pollution) reduction set like this," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group representing legislators and state officials from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Several lawmakers, including the committee's chairwoman, Del. Maggie McIntosh, expressed support for the approach.  McIntosh, a Baltimore city Democrat, noted that the state faces a 2017 deadline for meeting interim bay pollution-reduction targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Why would you want to wait four years to get the farm community to step up?" she asked at one point.

Opponents of the bill said that while they agreed in concept, the bill was seriously flawed and should be held for further study and revision between legislative sessions.  Some argued that the legislation fails to spell out what farmers would have to do to get the reprieve, and that it isn't clear how effective pollution control measures would be on a particular farm.

"Right now it is simply not there," said Roy Hoagland, representing the Audubon Naturalist Society.  Though the Chesapeake Bay Foundation supports the legislation, nearly two dozen other environmental and civic groups oppose it.  They argued that the legislation could undermine the bay cleanup rather than help it.

At least a few lawmakers on the panel seemed skeptical. Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, questioned the fairness of giving farmers a chance to put off new regulations and not small businesses or homeowners, who also face new bay cleanup fees and requirements.  He took particular aim, though, at the bill's confidentiality provision, which would bar disclosure of those granted a reprieve from regulations or what they specifically had done to earn the deferral.

McMillan said if he was a farmer who was meeting or exceeding all environmental requirements, "I'd be loud and proud. I don't understand why somebody who is performing on a high level would be ashamed of it."  When something like that is held back, he added, "I get suspicious ... I naturally think they've got something to hide."

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance said any farmer in the program was free to disclose it himself, and the state would release information without identifying individual farmers about what participating growers have done to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution of the bay. But he and farm group representatives said farmers are leery of being publicly identified because of a pollution lawsuit brought three years ago by the Waterkeeper Alliance against an Eastern Shore chicken farmer and the Perdue poultry company.  A federal judge tossed out the suit after a trial last year.

Virginia is in the process of finalizing a similar "agricultural certainty" program, though it would grant a regulatory reprieve of nine rather than 10 years.