Environmental group proposes tax on meat, dairy to aid in bay cleanup

Penny-a-pound `user fee' would be paid by shoppers

July 29, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Maryland shoppers would pay a penny-a-pound tax on meat and dairy products to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay under a proposal unveiled yesterday by an environmental organization.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's proposed "user fee" could generate $25 million a year for state programs to reduce the runoff of nutrients from manure and other farm wastes, said William C. Baker, the group's president.

The strategy would take aim at the bay's most serious problem: Its marine life and economy are being smothered by 44 million tons of manure produced every year by 185 million farm animals in the watershed, Baker said.

"We're talking about enough manure every year to fill 405,000 tractor trailers, which if they were lined up end to end, would stretch from Washington to San Francisco and back to Madison, Wisconsin," Baker said.

Money raised through a tax on meat and dairy products could pay for research into technologies to convert animal waste into fuel; programs to encourage farmers to grow off-season crops to reduce runoff from empty fields; and efforts to promote the use of feed additives that make chickens produce waste with less phosphorus, a nutrient linked to the "overfertilization" of the bay.

The proposal bears some resemblance to the $2.50 a month "flush tax" approved by the legislature this year to generate millions of dollars annually for improvements to sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed. Sewage treatment plants are a major source of nutrient pollution in the bay.

A long shot

But state legislators predicted that a food tax proposal would be a long shot in Annapolis.

"I am in favor of doing anything we can to clean up the bay, but we don't tax food, because from a health standpoint, the last thing we want to do is discourage children from getting dairy products and protein," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who was instrumental in getting the flush tax approved.

J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from the lower Eastern Shore and a minority leader in the state Senate, said of the food tax: "It would be a tough sell. The legislature doesn't approve food taxes, and I feel pretty certain the governor would not be in favor of it."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., withheld judgment.

"The administration hasn't seen a specific proposal for this tax but is willing to consider all suggestions," DeLeaver said. "It certainly is an interesting approach, unless you like KFC. If you are KFC or Ben & Jerry's, I'd certainly be concerned."

Jim Perdue, chief executive officer of Maryland-based Perdue Farms Inc., said a tax on the sale of chicken and other meats produced in Maryland would hurt the industry. It wouldn't be fair, he said, because much of the chicken purchased in Maryland is raised in Arkansas and other states that don't impose similar taxes.

"It's going to put a competitive disadvantage on us, and hurt our business, if they put a tax on us but not on, say, Tyson Foods in Arkansas," he said. "I also think it would be kind of naive, because [much of] the nutrients that flow into the bay come from other states like Pennsylvania and New York, and you're not going to convince everybody in these states to pay a tax to help the Chesapeake Bay."

Disputed elsewhere

So-called "polluter pays" proposals have caused disputes elsewhere. In 1996, Florida voters rejected a proposed penny-a-pound tax on the state sugar industry that would have generated almost $900 million to help clean up agricultural pollution in the Everglades after a bitter campaign that was the most expensive in the state's history. The sugar industry spent more than $24 million to defeat the proposal.

But John Surrick, a spokesman for the bay foundation, said other states have approved similar measures. Most have gas taxes to help pay for roads, and Iowa passed a tax on agricultural fertilizer, he noted.

During a news conference, Baker also outlined other ways Maryland and other states in the watershed could help.

Baker called on officials in Pennsylvania - which has two-thirds of the region's dairy cows - to encourage farmers to use cattle feed with lower nutrient levels, which could cut the amount of pollution from cow manure by 40 percent. And he asked federal officials to take more aggressive actions to enforce the Clean Water Act, and approve funding for a $20 million proposal to encourage farmers to control animal waste.

"We must move ahead, or throw in the towel and give up on the Chesapeake Bay," former state Sen. Bernie Fowler said at the news conference. "But I tell you: When the Chesapeake Bay goes, the heart of Maryland stops beating."

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