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After Four Years, Chesapeake Polluters’ Free Ride May be Coming to an End

Climate Justice

If you own a car, you’re used to paying a registration fee every two years. It may not be your favorite activity, but you do it. And you recognize that the fees and others like it help offset the cost of making sure vehicles on Maryland’s roads are safe, that their polluting emissions are within acceptable limits, and that the people who drive them are licensed to do so.

But, in a report issued last fall (and an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun), CPR President Rena Steinzor and I pointed out that Maryland was not taking that same no-nonsense, even-handed approach to all pollution sources. Instead, state officials have given more than 500 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) a free ride since state oversight began in 2010, waiving more than $400,000 in legally mandated fees in 2013 alone.

The report also revealed that Maryland has fallen far behind in reviewing permit applications from these facilities. Issuing permits is the only way to ensure that CAFOs are taking steps to limit pollutants flowing into the Bay and, while a permit is under review, a facility could operate without necessary pollution-prevention measures. As of November 2013, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) had not registered 26 percent of the animal farms under its purview.

Steinzor and I concluded that the program was understaffed, unable to keep up with permit applications and inspections. We recommended that MDE immediately begin assessing permit fees as a first and long-overdue step—both because it’s only fair that polluters pay their share and because it’s absurd to leave money on the table when it’s needed to help police critical pollution problems harming the Chesapeake.

About a year later, the agency is trying to take that step.

MDE is in the process of renewing the General Discharge Permit, a one-size-fits-all permit for both CAFOs and Maryland Animal Feeding Operations (MAFOs). The permit language, which is posted on MDE’s website, will replace the existing text that has been in effect since 2009. The language clearly calls for CAFOs to submit a fee, providing an address where CAFOs “shall submit . . . the required fee” p.10.

MDE has done the right thing by requiring that CAFOs pay an annual fee, but that’s not the end of the road. After all, the 2009 permit required fees, too. After writing this good language into the permit, however, MDE then waived it, undoubtedly reflecting the wishes of the Governor and his appointees.

The fees will not pose much of a burden on the operators of these industrial farms. Permit fees are $120 for small CAFOs, which can house up to 37,499 chickens at a time; $600 for medium CAFOs, which can house up to 124,999 chickens at once; and $1,200 for large CAFOs, which house more than $125,000 birds at a time, with some large enough to hold millions of chickens. (There are no fees for MAFO coverage).

With more than 500 CAFOs in the state, however, the money can make a real difference to the vital work of MDE at a time when it is strapped for cash. Collecting CAFO fees will ensure a steady, reliable source of funding. If MDE had required permit holders to pay fees, it would have brought more than $400,000 into the fight against Bay pollution last year alone. The fees also ensure that a facility that pollutes the Bay shoulders the cost of regulating its operations—including permit-processing and inspecting it for compliance with the law—rather than foisting the cost onto the taxpaying public.

Maryland has made commitment after commitment to restore the Bay. The difficult part is ensuring that these commitments are met, and that they’re met equitably. This draft permit language, which is open for public comment until Oct. 20th, would get us a step closer to that goal. This time, we need to make sure that Governor O’Malley and the next governor hold agriculture accountable for its share of the cost of cleanup and pollution prevention, and stop giving polluters a free ride. 

Climate Justice

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