Chesapeake is a victim of Pennsylvania fiasco


December 05, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Perhaps the time has come, with farmers who pollut Chesapeake Bay, to take them to court -- to finally enforce on agriculture the environmental laws that govern the rest of society.

That is the kind of talk you hear these days in Pennsylvania, following the bitter defeat of the first attempt by any state in the Chesapeake region to require farms to reduce their nutrient pollution of the bay.

One hopes it needn't come to litigation and enforcement actions. But more than a piece of legislation may have died in Harrisburg last week when the state Senate, in the last day of a 23-month session, failed to act on the centerpiece of Pennsylvania's efforts to protect the Chesapeake.

The larger casualty may have been the extraordinary coalition among environmental, governmental and agricultural interests, the product of nearly four years of painstaking consensus building. This was the high-road approach, aimed at achieving a substantial reduction in the runoff of fertilizers and manure that is killing the bay.

And until recently the approach seemed to be working. House Bill 496, the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Act, was on Gov. Bob Casey's "must" list. When the bill cleared the House by a substantial majority, it had the backing, or acquiescence, of virtually all the state's major farm groups, its agribusiness industry, and environmentalists from the Sierra Club to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But trouble was brewing in the form of a retired Army Special Forces sergeant named Allen Weicksel. He had been criss-crossing the state, holding 102 meetings between March and May in barns and kitchens, rousing opposition to the bill among the Amish and other farmers.

Mr. Weicksel, who has enrolled his own dairy farm in a Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, says he created his Family Farm Movement in response to neighbors, mostly Plain Sect (Amish and Mennonites), "who sought me out because of my background." His background, he says, was military adviser in countries "where we wanted to take governments out, put governments in, that sort of stuff. Organizing this movement was just an extension of what I'd done my whole career."

Farmers dominate hearing

In May, Mr. Weicksel managed to dominate a Senate ` agriculture committee hearing on the bill, showing up with more than a hundred farmers, including dozens of Amish, who very seldom participate publicly in such affairs.

Another blow to the bill came, inadvertently, from Maryland, which generally has taken the lead in the bay cleanup. But on agricultural pollution, Maryland doggedly pursues a voluntary-educational approach with farmers. This permissive policy -- in the state that benefits most from a cleaner Chesapeake -- raised questions about the urgency of tougher, mandatory controls in Pennsylvania. The policy discrepancy was underscored by the chairman of the Senate agriculture committee.

Neither the Maryland issue nor Mr. Weicksel's group seemed powerful enough to trash nearly four years of work by such a broad coalition; but the bill never made it out of the Senate agriculture committee.

Weakened to exclude all but 15 percent of Pennsylvania farms draining into the bay, the bill went again to the Senate. But even that version, which strengthened some enforcement language, proved unacceptable as time ran out last week.

The outcome has left Chesapeake bay interests wondering where to go from here, and with a lot less faith in their ability to find common ground with agriculture.

"I'm going to advise my board that we look seriously at taking action under existing clean-water laws," says Jeff Schmidt, lobbyist for the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter.

DTC Mr. Schmidt says Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Act already provides full authority for the state Department of Environmental Resources (DER) to regulate and sue farmers for water pollution.

It was the specter of being regulated by DER that had impelled many farm groups to support the nutrient management bill. The bill would create an oversight commission, chaired by the secretary of DER, but including seven farmers and agricultural officials among its 11 members, and doing business by majority vote.

Farmers now will also face regulation from below as well as above, as more and more of the state's thousands of townships pass their own farm pollution laws, creating an unwieldy patchwork of regulation, notes Lamonte Garber, an agricultural specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Harrisburg.

The foundation, which invested the most time and energy of any environmental group in the failed bill, has not decided on a new strategy, Mr. Garber says. He adds that "asking DER to enforce the Clean Streams Act is one of the options we'll be looking at."

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