Timid Bay Agreement Falls Short

by Rena Steinzor

Maryland faces an important deadline in its long-running effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. By 2017, the state is required to implement specific measures to reduce the massive quantities of nutrient pollution that now flow into the Bay from agriculture, sewage treatment plants, power plants, factories, golf courses, and lawns. Gov. Martin O’Malley and the other Bay State governors know we’re going to have to make some demands on polluters to get the job done. But if the new Bay Watershed Agreement is any indication, the politicians lack the stomach for it.

For years, the Bay states have collaborated their way to nowhere, inking joint agreements that resulted in very little actual progress. Then the Obama EPA stepped up to the plate, issuing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet for the Bay. Under its terms, by 2017, the six Bay states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York) and the District of Columbia must have in place 60 percent of all the measures needed to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment deposition in the Bay and its tidal rivers. By 2025, 100 percent of those measures are due.

The interstate agreement recently announced by the Chesapeake Executive Council, now chaired by Gov. O’Malley, was a chance for the governors to make sure they were holding each of the various polluting sectors to roughly the same standards across state lines. That way, the big chicken companies in the region won’t be able to play one state off against another. It was also the states’ chance to address some of the issues unaddressed by the TMDL, most notably toxic chemicals in the Bay and the problems resulting from climate change.

The governors whiffed on all of that, unfortunately. The agreement is silent on climate change and toxics. And it makes no effort to hold agriculture accountable. Like so many past Chesapeake Bay agreements, this one’s little more than a show pony.

Most Maryland pollution sources—sewage treatment plants, county stormwater systems, even homeowners—are required to contribute to Bay cleanup in a transparent and verifiable way. Sewage treatment plants and other stationary sources of pollution must apply for a permit to operate and are subject to fees, regular inspections, and record-keeping requirements. To upgrade sewage treatment plant pollution controls, homeowners pay a “flush tax” of $60 per year.

In addition, Maryland’s nine largest counties and Baltimore City have started collecting annual fees from property owners to help manage polluted stormwater runoff.

Such measures make sense. Maryland derives billions of tourism dollars from the Bay each year. To restore this vital economic and recreational engine, it’s only fair that each sector takes responsibility for its share of pollution. 

Agricultural operations are responsible for nearly half of the nutrients now choking the Chesapeake. But efforts to hold agriculture responsible for its share have fallen flat.

Large industrial animal farms have operated for years without paying modest fees meant to cover the costs of minimal regulation and inspection requirements. Although these farms are considered “point sources,” just like sewage treatment plants, Maryland refuses to collect fees, leaving over $400,000 on the table in 2013. 

A bill introduced this past session proposed a 5-cent tax on every chicken produced in Maryland, to be paid by the large poultry companies that contract with farmers to raise the birds. Governor O’Malley threatened a veto before it even had a hearing. The $15 million annual revenue would have been used to pay farmers to plant cover crops that prevent excess fertilizer from their fields from washing off into rivers and streams.

Getting serious about cleaning up the Bay means sharing the responsibility among all the actors. The failure to hold agriculture accountable for its share of the pollution unfairly shifts the burden to taxpayers and other polluting sectors. Maryland has made some important strides toward cleaning up the Bay but it will never finish the job if it ignores the source of half the estuary’s pollution.  

This tepid don’t-rock-the-boat agreement harks back to yesteryear, when Bay states spent two full decades blowing each other air kisses without getting much done. Thousands of groups and individuals, including CPR, submitted comments on the draft agreement, which Gov. O’Malley and the rest of the Executive Council are now reviewing. We urge Gov. O’Malley to revise the agreement so it reflects the true value Bay restoration represents to Maryland.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform