This week, Larry Hogan promised poultry farmers that his "first fight" as governor will be to scrap new rules from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to curb the amount of phosphorous from chicken manure running into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We won't allow [the O'Malley administration] to put you out of business, destroy your way of life, or decimate your entire industry," Hogan told the Maryland Farm Bureau convention, sounding more like a guy still campaigning than one preparing to govern.
Hogan doesn't take office until next month, and it's not clear how much homework he's done on the problem of poultry-related pollution. But in making that promise to farmers, he certainly sounded like a traditional, predictable, knee-jerk Republican who equates business regulation with business strangulation, and who puts commerce over the bay.
He has also pledged to repeal the stormwater remediation fees in Baltimore and the nine largest counties, another effort to curtail pollution of bay waters. Hogan and others call it a "rain tax," ridiculing the idea that property owners and municipalities should help pay to reduce the amount of filthy stormwater that flows off roofs, parking lots and streets into the Chesapeake.
I'd call Hogan's approach old-school except that, once upon a time, you could find American conservatives who were also conservationists; they considered protecting and preserving natural resources important, and they believed government had to provide the vigilant stewardship necessary to keep our waters from becoming cesspools. They were also pro-business.
But those days, and such conservatives, are gone. Since the Reagan years, the message has been: "Government bad, business good; regulation bad, deregulation good."
In this regard, Hogan is fully predictable.
But here's the thing: When it comes to Maryland poultry farming and its connection to Chesapeake Bay pollution, his Democratic predecessor wasn't much better.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has been a good friend to the chicken farmer. He famously criticized a pollution lawsuit against one of chicken processor Perdue's contract farmers on the Eastern Shore. Last winter, he went out of his way to threaten a veto of a nickel tax on chicken to fund an anti-pollution effort. And the rules his administration announced last month — to curtail farmers' widespread use of poultry manure as fertilizer, a source of the phosphorous that gets into the bay and causes "dead zones" — were three years in the making and delayed to accommodate the concerns of the poultry industry.
So Hogan might look like a conservative Republican coming to the rescue of chicken farmers beleaguered by a bay-hugging liberal Democrat. But he would simply be scrapping rules that his predecessor did not manage to propose until the last minute of his administration. Proposing new rules at the end of O'Malley's last term added an aura of sneakiness to the whole thing, making it easier for Hogan to cancel them.
Poultry farmers might bellyache that the rules are too expensive. And they predictably argue that their fertilizing practices are not the source of the nutrients that trigger the algae blooms that block sunlight and draw oxygen from the water, contributing to the bay's dead zones. But the evidence is otherwise.
Farms are the source of more than half of all the phosphorus that gets into the bay from Maryland each year, about 1.6 million pounds of it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last week, the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws, released the results of its examination of annual reports submitted to the state by Maryland farms. It looked specifically at 62 poultry operations in five Eastern Shore counties in 2012, farmers who spread chicken manure on their fields instead of hauling it away. The reports revealed that, on average, those farmers gave their crops three times the phosphorus they needed. In other words, the fields on those farms are saturated with the stuff.
This is significant work by the environmentalist group, and maybe Hogan should have read the report before making promises to chicken farmers about scrapping important new rules.
But if the governor-elect is willing to at least acknowledge a problem — and he did during an interview with this newspaper during the campaign — then maybe he will consider some common-sense ideas for dealing with the phosphorous runoff.
Here's the big one:
Get busy building a waste-to-energy plant somewhere on the Eastern Shore. The state got millions of dollars for one in its settlement with Exelon Corp. over that company's purchase of Constellation Energy. Three years after that settlement, the power plant project is still in limbo. Supposedly it could keep hundreds of thousands of tons of excess chicken manure off farm fields by burning it and turning it into electricity.
O'Malley did not get this $75 million project up and running. So Hogan has a great opportunity — to get the power plant online, deal with the manure-phosphorus problem and show us that he's more than just a traditional, predictable, knee-jerk Republican who puts the interests of business and commerce over the Chesapeake Bay.