Farm Bureau takes aim at EPA limits on pollutant runoff into Chesapeake Bay

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 10:34 PM

Over its long history, the American Farm Bureau Federation, a powerful national lobby, has paid little attention to the Chesapeake Bay region, which includes the District, Virginia and Maryland.

But at its annual conference in Atlanta last month, the group issued a call to arms against the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to limit the amount of toxic pollutants that flow into the bay from cities and farms and suffocate marine life.

The Farm Bureau recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., to stop the EPA. It argued that the bay's cleanup is the responsibility of the six states in the region and that the EPA does not have the authority to establish a "pollution diet" that will cost taxpayers and farmers billions of dollars by the time it is fully implemented in 2025.

The lawsuit also says that the EPA's science in determining the level of the bay's pollutants is flawed and that the agency did not allow sufficient public comment in the run-up to the plan's implementation in December. The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, and local governments in the Hampton Roads area of southern Virginia are contemplating their own suits, according to reports.

Why is the American Farm Bureau so concerned about the Chesapeake Bay? And why now?

The farm lobby has made it clear it sees the cleanup effort as a harbinger of more far-reaching EPA requirements across the country, including in the Mississippi River basin, where chemical runoff from industrial farms is swept to the Gulf of Mexico. This pollution creates large swaths of low-oxygen areas known as dead zones, killing marine life.

"This new EPA approach will not end with the Chesapeake Bay," Bob Stallman, the Farm Bureau's president, said in an address early this month. "EPA has already revealed its plan to follow suit in other watersheds across the nation, including the Mississippi watershed. That is why our legal effort is essential to preserving the power of the states - not EPA - to decide whether and how to regulate farming practices in America's watersheds."

An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the litigation but said restoring the bay to health will help local economies and encourage recreational activities.

Environmentalists are concerned that the Farm Bureau is focusing on the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay watershed because of its broader interests in the Midwest. Don Carr, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, which monitors the Farm Bureau, said the lawsuit is a warning to stay away from the Mississippi River basin and the giant farms around it.

The EPA put its latest pollution diet in place in December, calling it the largest water pollution strategy in the nation.

"I agree that this is motivated by the national Farm Bureau's issues elsewhere. The Chesapeake Bay just happens to be the place where [regulations] are being implemented now," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), noting that bay enforcement efforts have been around for 10 years.

Cardin said the lawsuit lacks merit because each state, not the EPA, designs its own cleanup plan.

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