BALTIMORE (AP) — Environmental groups are split over a bill that would give Maryland farmers more certainty about how Chesapeake Bay restoration regulations will affect them.
Under the legislation, farmers would be exempted from new regulations for 10 years if they agree to meet bay restoration goals and submit to inspections of their farms. Supporters argue it is a way to engage farmers and collect data on restoration efforts, while opponents note it could shift the burden onto others.
Groups opposing the bill include the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environment Maryland and the National Wildlife Federation.
Tony Caligiuri of the National Wildlife Federation’s Mid-Atlantic Center said municipalities, developers and homeowners are paying to reduce pollution.
“But our plans could be completely upended if we start treating one single sector, agriculture, with such favoritism,” Caligiuri said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation supports the bill, which awaits a scheduled hearing Tuesday before a Senate committee.
Most farms are not regulated like sewage treatment plants and other permitted facilities, and the program would provide a framework to encourage farmers to participate, foundation vice president Kim Coble said.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said large concentrated animal feeding operations that are already operating under a permit are not included in the program, but about 5,500 smaller farms would be eligible. The bill is similar to one that has been passed in Virginia, where regulations are now being crafted, and a bill being considered in Delaware, the agriculture secretary said.
Farmers would have to agree to meet pollution reduction goals under a bay restoration effort being led by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and agree to inspections every three years. They’d also be required to submit annual reports, including soil test results on fertilized land. At the end of the 10 years, farmers would be required to meet any new requirements, but the program would give them time to prepare, Hance said.
“We don’t expect to have long lines because of the reporting that is required in the legislation,” Hance said.
The new, stricter federally led effort assigns pollution cuts geographically among regions in the bay watershed, which covers parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.
Total maximum daily loads are assigned for nitrogen and phosphorus that cause oxygen-robbing algae blooms and sediment which can cloud water and bury underwater grasses, oysters and other species. Pollution sources include farms, power plants, vehicle exhaust and sewage treatment plants.
If large numbers of farmers do sign up, opponents have questioned whether more cuts could be made by the agriculture sector if required by the EPA. Hance noted that farms and sewage treatment plants have made the most progress so far toward meeting the state’s goals, and the program would lead to even more cuts by participating farmers.
“We would argue the day those farmers sign up, they are going to immediately make progress and that would be a tradeoff for any delay in future requirements,” Hance said, adding that federal regulators have supported the approach.
Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said farmers who sign up for the program will be doing more, not less, to restore the bay. Connelly also said the reporting and inspection requirements may keep down participation. However, she said farmers have been worried about where the process will lead.
“We’ve had farmers saying `When will I know if I’ve done enough?,”‘ Connelly said, adding the bureau views the program as a “win-win” because farmers will be able to concentrate on farming while bay restoration efforts will get accomplished faster if enough participate.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)