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70 Percent of Pennsylvania Farmers Violate Clean Water Law

Three decades ago, the great Chesapeake Bay writer Tom Horton wrote in the conclusion to his book, Bay Country: “Any meaningful cleanup of the bay will be literally impossible without a huge effort from the third of the watershed that lies in Pennsylvania.”

That effort from Pennsylvania – by far the bay’s biggest source of pollution -- never came. And so the restoration of the nation's largest estuary has hit a brick wall.

The Bay region states are approaching a critical 2017 mid-point assessment in the most recent Bay cleanup agreement: EPA's “pollution diet” for the bay.

These federal pollution limits, imposed in 2010, were hailed as “last, best chance” for the Chesapeake Bay because EPA was finally threatening penalties to states that failed to meet critical milestones while reducing their pollution by 25 percent by the year 2025.

But while Maryland and other neighboring states are on track to meet pollution reduction goals, Pennsylvania recently admitted that it is way off track.  

Pennsylvania's failure is a major problem, because the keystone state is responsible for 46 percent of the nitrogen pollution choking the bay – more than twice the amount as Maryland – as well as 31 percent of the sediment and 26 percent of the phosphorus pollution, according to EPA figures.

In an interview, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Department of the Environment, John Quigley, said that an estimated 70 percent of his state’s 33,600 farms in the bay watershed still lack plans to reduce manure runoff into streams that were required by law 35 years ago.  These manure management plans direct farmers not to spread manure within 100 feet of waterways, and limit the rate of application of fertilizer.

Quigley said that his state – under the new leadership of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf -- is now looking to start nudging farmers to obtain and follow these plans as part of a “reboot’ of the state’s efforts to reduce pollution into the bay.

 “Regardless of what has or has not been done up to this point, it is part of the reboot strategy that we are going to make sure that farmers are living up to their responsibilities with respect to having those plans,” Quigley said.  “That’s the basics. It's fundamental to any effort to improve local water quality in Pennsylvania, and by virtue of that, the bay. “

Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law allows the state to impose fines of between $100 and $10,000 on farmers who do not have or follow these manure management plans. But the state has chosen not to impose these penalties. When I pressed Quigley if he would start actually enforcing the law and fining farms, he said the state was not ready for this. Instead, he said the state would work with partners to first conduct a survey of farms to see what runoff control projects farmers already have in place.

“Before we take any action along the lines that you suggest we think it’s far more appropriate to try to get better information on which to base our decision,” Quigley said.

In other words, 35 years after Pennsylvania passed a law requiring pollution control efforts by farms; 15 years after Pennsylvania and the other Chesapeake Bay states failed to meet a 2000 deadline for cleaning up the bay; and five years after the states blew a second 2010 bay cleanup deadline -- Pennsylvania is just now planning to start collecting information on the subject.  But the state is still not yet taking action, beyond voluntary efforts that have been proven inadequate.

I asked Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, why so few farmers in his state are following the law. He speculated that that there could be several factors, including a lack of lack of awareness among some farmers of the requirement for the manure management plans, and the fact that creating the plans can cost money.  Many of the farms in the central part of the state that drains into the Chesapeake are family owned dairies with 75 to 275 cows, about 130 acres of crops, and very thin profit margins, O’Neill said.

“Making a profit now in farming in Pennsylvania is extremely challenging,” O’Neill said.  “Farming is a vocation and a way of life, but it is also business as well.  And if they cannot make money, year after year, then they are not going to be around very long to pass it on to the next generation.”

Jacki Bonomo, chief operating officer of Penn Future, the state’s biggest environmental organization, said that Pennsylvania’s plan to restart or “reboot” its Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts – which includes opening a new Chesapeake Bay Office within the state environmental agency -- deserves praise for at least putting enforcement on the table. Now the question is whether the concept of enforcement will actually become reality.

“It is a good plan, well thought out,” Bonomo said.  “Will it actually get the job done?  Certainly that will be answered in its execution.”

Pennsylvania’s go-slow approach is in contrast to Maryland, where 99 percent of the state’s farms already have similar fertilizer management plans.  The Maryland Department of Agriculture randomly audited 772 of its farms last year, determined that 31 percent were not in full compliance, and issued fines to 186 farmers that averaged $372 each, according to the state agency.

In Pennsylvania, another major problem is a $2 billion state budget deficit and severe cuts to state agencies. The last two governors eliminated 671 positions at the Department of Environmental Protection – about 14 percent of the workforce. The cuts left only three state inspectors to oversee 33,600 farms.

“The agency’s ability to do its job – and perform basic functions – has been severely compromised over the last decade because of budget cuts,” Quigley said.

On top of this, there is a huge gap in government funding for pollution control projects on farms, such as the building of manure storage pits and the installation of fences to keep cows out of streams.  Penn State University has estimated that it would cost the state about $378 million per year to install enough of these practices to meet EPA’s pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, but right now Pennsylvania and the federal government are only investing about $127 million per year – meaning there a $250 million annual funding hole.

Evan Isaacson, a policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform, said an obvious answer to the funding gap would be for Pennsylvania to impose a tax on the extraction of natural gas from the large number of drilling and fracking sites.

 “Every other oil and gas producing state has a severance tax (on natural gas extraction),” Isaacson said. “I think it would be a reasonable notion that if you are going to be pulling the gas out of the ground anyway, they might as well tax that gas like every other state does and dedicate a portion of the money to restoring the environment.”

But the political backdrop is that the Pennsylvania General Assembly – dominated by Republicans, rural conservatives and industry advocates – has been reluctant to impose taxes or approve funding for any environmental staff or projects.

In September, EPA threatened Pennsylvania with $3 million in penalties because the state was so negligent its pollution reduction efforts.  But then, in January, the federal agency dropped the threat.

EPA still has some power to take action to push Pennsylvania to clean up its act. But EPA's backtracking was not an encouraging sign that the federal government will actually – finally – hold states accountable for cleaning up 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.