The latest political counter-blow in the long-standing battle to clean up the Chesapeake Bay came in March when Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte introduced H.R. 4153, the Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization and Improvement Act.

The bill is aimed at continuing the Bay cleanup effort, but safeguarding farmers and home builders from stringent requirements set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the ongoing cleanup effort.

Goodlatte’s bill is co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Congressmen Tim Holden and Glenn Thompson and Ohio Congressman Bob Gibbs. 

It had already drawn negative response from Bay Restoration leaders, but when Goodlatte proclaimed its merits as guest-host of the Ag Minute on March 20, energy was ramped up on both sides of the debate.

The Ag Minute is produced by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and is widely followed in political circles by leaders of both sides of the Chesapeake Bay restoration issue.

Goodlatte says his bill, which was referred to the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy on March 9, will protect the Bay’s health while reigning in the power of the Federal Government via the EPA.

Protecting the states agriculture economy takes on even more importance to the economic well-being of Virginia, based on comments by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell at the recent Governor’s Conference on Agricultural Trade in Richmond.

Governor Bob McDonnell has announced that agricultural exports from Virginia reached an all-time high level in 2011, surpassing the previous record set in 2009. The Governor made the announcement during his keynote remarks at the Governor's Conference on Agricultural Trade in Richmond.

The Commonwealth exported a record $2.35 billion in agricultural products in 2011, a more than six percent increase from 2010.

The new record also is a more than two percent increase above the 2009 level when Virginia reached its previous record high for agricultural exports. The growth in agricultural exports comes despite a continued slow economic recovery worldwide.

Goodlatte says, “The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization and Improvement Act allows states in the Bay Watershed more flexibility in meeting water quality goals so that we can help restore and protect our natural resources.”

He also cites the value of Virginia agriculture to the economic well-being of the region.

Farmers in the seven-state Bay Estuary have not been pleased with the heavy-handed actions of the EPA and via legal action by Farm Bureaus in each state have exposed a number of unfair practices carried out as part of the Bay cleanup.

High on complaint list

High on the list of farmer complaints is the lack of valid data that has gone into some of the EPA guidelines for total daily maximum load of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Farmers have likewise complained openly and loudly that they have not received enough credit for their environmental stewardship and have received too much of the blame for ongoing pollution problems in the Bay.

Congressman Goodlatte zeroed in on some of these complaints in defense of his latest bill.

He says, “The EPA has failed to properly assess nutrient reductions and has also refused to conduct a cost benefit analysis.”

Goodlatte contends his legislation sets up new programs to give farmers, homebuilders and localities new ways to meet their water quality goals.

The bill preserves current intrastate nutrient trading programs that several Bay states have in place, while also creating a voluntary interstate nutrient trading program.

It also has language that reinforces and preserves the ability of states to write their own water quality plans.

The Goodlatte legislation requires that an independent evaluator assess and make recommendations to alter the EPA’s Bay model so that all nutrient reductions that are happening can be captured.

As expected, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was quick to criticize the latest compromise legislation.

As soon as the Goodlatte legislation was announced, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation countered with a statement critical of the bill.

The foundation said the congressman’s legislation “would undo the progress we have made, with adverse impacts on seafood, human health and the regional economy.”

And, the statement says, “This legislation would undermine the pollution limits currently in place, derail clean-up efforts and undercut the federal government’s role in making sure that all Americans have access to clean, swimmable, fishable waters.”

Goodlatte promoted his new bill on the Ag Minute on March 20, touching off a firestorm of responses from concerned parties on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay restoration issue.

Meeting with farmers in Virginia, Goodlatte said one of his biggest concerns is that the EPA has failed to do an adequate cost-benefit analysis of all the Chesapeake Bay mandates it is imposing on the states in the Bay Watershed.

Big impact on small business

“The costs could impact small businesses and industrial recruitment. It will affect small businesses with higher water and sewer rates. If we don’t get the EPA to back off, it will make the Chesapeake Bay region unattractive for all kinds of businesses,’’ the Virginia congressman says.

Speaking at the same meeting in Verona, Va., Ken Fanfoni, the executive director of the Augusta County Service Authority, says, “$205 million in recent wastewater treatment plant upgrades on five plants in a 20-mile radius of Verona resulted in a reduction of only 1/10 of one percent in nitrogen, and every customer will pay $200 a year over the next 20 years for what we have done.”

Bay area farmers mostly just want the whole Bay Restoration question to be settled and for those pointing the finger of pollution at agriculture to get their facts right.

Third generation Virginia farmer Billy Bain has testified a number of times before various organizations, offering a farmer’s perspective.

Bain, who has won numerous awards for his environmental stewardship and was the first Virginia farmer to switch to less environmentally stressful strip-tilling of peanut lands, says farmers don’t get enough credit for being the ultimate environmentalists.

“We as farmers have everything to lose and absolutely nothing to gain by putting too much fertilizer or other farm chemicals on our soil. With the high cost of fertilizer today and the extra cost of applying it, it would just be crazy to use any more than you need,” he says.

Bain says he doesn’t know of any Virginia farmer who opposes the idea of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. What farmers want is a fair accounting of what they have done and continue to do on a daily basis to prevent pollutants from reaching the Bay, he says.

David Trujillo, who is farm manager for Hart Hudson Farms near South Hill, Va., says even a cursory look at farms by those heading the Bay restoration program would be clear evidence that agriculture isn’t the primary cause of ongoing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

“I will be planting my 39th crop here in Virginia this spring. I can remember times when I could see fertilizer left on the ground and the runoff from rainwater was the color of our soil. Now, you just don’t see that. What runoff water we have on our farm is clear — there’s just not much there to cause problems in streams, he says.

The Chesapeake Bay is the country’s largest estuary and the first to be targeted by the U.S. Congress for clean up.

Similar estuaries around the country are keeping a careful eye on proceeding for the Chesapeake Bay because of persistent rumors that the Bay model will be used for similar cleanup programs for estuaries around the country.

(Agricultural interests across the country are paying close attention to the Chesapeake Bay developments, with concerns the final outcome could impact other areas of the U.S. For a look into that situation, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/government/chesapeake-bay-cleanup-threat-us-farming-0. Meanwhile, there are claims of gaps in data being used by EPA to determine what guidelines farmers will have to follow in the Bay restoration issue. For that report, click here).

rroberson@farmpress.com