What kind of stewardship is this?

Our view: Before EPA's pollution diet can even be tried, Farm Bureau lawyers up and takes a promising Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort to court

January 13, 2011

For more than a generation, efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay have treated the family farmer as gently as one might a friend or relative. Where other industries have been forced to meet more stringent rules and taxpayers have shelled out billions of dollars for better sewage treatment plants and the like, agriculture has been given more subsidies and incentives and offered more voluntary regulations than any other major polluter.

And make no mistake — agriculture is a major polluter. It contributes as much to the region's water pollution woes as anyone. Scientists estimate about half the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that has caused such devastation to the flora and fauna of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries over the years can be traced to runoff from farmland.

So just as Maryland and other states seem to be on the cusp of a new hope for the bay — an effort led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that could lead to substantially less pollution entering the ecosystem over the next 15 years — who do you imagine goes to court to thwart this critical environmental initiative before it even gets started?

That would be the American Farm Bureau Federation, the so-called "voice of agriculture" at the national level, a powerful Washington lobbying group.

That the Farm Bureau would attempt to derail the EPA's "pollution diet" for Maryland and the five other states in the watershed before the first new regulation is even on the books should be an embarrassment to farmers everywhere. This is the thanks the agriculture community gives for those decades of understanding (not to mention taxpayer subsidies) it has received?

The lawsuit filed Monday in a federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., makes all sorts of unfounded claims about the EPA initiative. Perhaps the most outrageous is that the EPA is somehow not allowing states to decide how best to improve water quality or take into account the economic and social impacts on businesses and communities.

Of course it does. States have already submitted plans for how they will meet certain pollution reduction targets. Their approaches vary — as they should, given the different circumstances, economies and even geographies involved.

The lawsuit also claims the science is "flawed" and that the public hasn't had sufficient input. Untrue in both cases. States have been contemplating (and rewriting) their proposals since 2009, with multiple opportunities for public comment along the way. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture's own data confirms the harmfulness of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farms.

What appears to be going on here is not some grass-roots protest but a national organization with a national agenda that cares not a whit about the Chesapeake Bay. Rather, the Farm Bureau wants to thwart more stringent EPA enforcement efforts across the country — and says so right on its website. The last thing the organization wants is for the multistate bay cleanup process to be replicated along the Mississippi River or elsewhere in the Midwest.

That's not striking a blow for farmers in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York; it's striking a blow against clean land, water and air, something farmers claim to care about. It's ignoring the decades of research that have documented the ways soil erosion, animal waste, pesticides and fertilizer runoff have fouled the environment.

Farmers are not villains, but they are expected to be responsible stewards of their land. They need to better understand the ways certain farming practices have hurt the bay — not be frightened by nonsensical claims that pollution laws will force them out of business before any regulation, good or bad, is even on the books.

Lawsuits like the one filed by the Farm Bureau are not only destructive to the Chesapeake Bay, they are harmful to the interests of all residents of the watershed, farmers included. If farmers are allowed to opt out of pollution laws, then the burden on taxpayers and industry will be that much greater.

Or worse, the most encouraging effort yet to restore the nation's largest estuary may simply be thwarted before it's even begun. Surely, that's not what farmers, or anyone else, want to happen.

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