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The Chesapeake Bay’s Farm Paradox


  Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton and other experts recently discussed a great paradox of the bay cleanup effort during a forum held by the nonprofit Abell Foundation in Baltimore.

The federal and state governments have been successful in imposing regulations that have worked reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants, cars and power plants. But for the largest source of pollution the bay – farms – government continues to rely on mostly voluntary programs that do not appear to be working.

Public spending on the bay cleanup is seriously out of balance. Residents of urban areas like Baltimore and Washington are being forced to spend billions of dollars to fix their sewage and stormwater systems.  But the agricultural industry is being compelled to invest little or nothing.

And here is the strange part:  State officials keep telling farmers they are doing great in cleaning up the bay. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to reassure the states they are doing great in their oversight of farms.  But none of it is true – if you look at the condition of the bay itself.

“There is, to a degree I’ve never seen anywhere with a pollution source, a disjunct between what agricultural leaders are claiming as progress in reducing agricultural pollution; what farmers are hearing, in most cases that we’ve done almost all we can – we’ve done a lot, we’re meeting our goals; and what the bay and the rivers and what U.S. Geological Survey monitoring is saying, which is: 'No, we haven’t,'” Horton said. “Progress that we have made – which has been modest -- may even be flattening out and reversing in some cases.”

Horton teamed up with soil scientist Tom Simpson, former Maryland Environmental Secretary Robert Summers, and Bay Journal writer Rona Kobell to write a report titled, “The Chesapeake Bay and Agricultural Pollution” that was released during the Abell Foundation’s forum on Friday.

The report points out that the farm lobby has enormous political influence that empowered it to successfully exempt most farms from the federal Clean Water Act.

Despite the failure of voluntary programs to reduce pollution in the Bay, Maryland and other states are now looking to double down on the voluntary approach by expanding pollution credit trading.  In this system, power plants or municipalities that want to dump more pollution in a river can send money – through a broker – to farmers. The farmers, in turn, are supposed to plant trees beside streams and take other steps to reduce runoff of their fertilizer.

But how can you verify pollution reductions in a system like this?  The problem is, federal and state laws make most of the pollution control records of farms secret – unlike those of other businesses.  Also problematic is that Maryland  last year dramatically cut back its water quality monitoring in streams in the state’s most intensively farmed area, the lower Eastern Shore.

One verification system being considered now by EPA and Maryland would use independent third-party auditors to check up on pollution trades. 

“Everybody, all sources, need to be audited,” said Summers.  “The Clean Water Act requires that we meet the water quality standards.  And in order for us to do that, all of the sources to the bay – including agriculture – are going to need to do their part.”

The problem is: audits are often flawed. As seen with the Enron fraud and the misuse of funds at the Baltimore Police Department, third-party auditors sometimes whitewash their findings to serve whoever is paying them.  Making pollution trading records and farm records public and open to inspection would help solve this problem.  But that is an answer that the farm industry and its allies in government have resisted.

Among those attending Friday’s event was Michele Merkel, co-director of the legal program at Food & Water Watch. In her view, the only way around this secrecy problem is to avoid trading schemes altogether. Instead, the bay states and EPA should employ the kind of traditional, top-down government regulation that actually works.

“We think trading – again, another voluntary program – is not only not getting the reductions we need from agriculture,” Merkel said.  “But trading is also turning the Clean Water Act on its head for other sources of pollution who traditionally have had permits that have required them to ratchet pollution down over time. Now, instead of doing that, they can simply pollute as much as they can afford to.”

Why trade away the Chesapeake Bay?

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.