A broadcast remark by the Obama administration's point person on the Chesapeake Bay about strengthening federal controls on farm pollution has triggered some high-level diplomacy between Annapolis and Washington.
Pressed by lower Eastern Shore politicians who contend that "stringent" federal regulations already are driving the poultry industry from the state, Gov. Martin O'Malley has exchanged letters and and conferred by phone with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, seeking "clarification" about whether Maryland's chicken farmers face the prospect of tougher regulation than growers elsewhere in the country.
O'Malley wrote the EPA chief on Sept. 18, forwarding a letter he'd received nearly two weeks earlier from the Worcester County commissioners complaining that federal regulations imposed by the agency's regional office in Philadelphia put Maryland chicken farmers on "an uneven playing field" compared with growers in other states.
The Worcester commissioners also noted that Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury, had dropped plans to build a new $23 million hatchery in Pocomoke City - opting instead to expand operations in North Carolina - and was closing other operations in Worcester, eliminating 36 jobs in the county. (Perdue's press release announcing the moves made no mention of regulatory pressure, saying the decision was driven by a desire to make better use of existing hatchery facilities both in Salisbury and in North Carolina.)
In a telephone interview yesterday, O'Malley said his letter was prompted not so much by the Perdue moves, but by remarks made on a talk radio show by J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, senior advisor to the EPA administrator on the bay. Fox, calling in to WYPR's "Midday with Dan Rodricks," noted that EPA and Maryland regulators had been working to apply federal rules governing how large poultry farms must limit rainfall runoff from around their chicken houses.
(Prodded by EPA, more than 400 large chicken farms on the Shore have applied for "concentrated animal feeding operation" permits. The permits require them to submit plans for keeping the manure produced by their flocks from being washed by rain into nearby streams or ditches. Perhaps half the state's chicken farms are not affected by the federal requirement, though many may be covered by a less stringent state rule taking effect later this year.)
"We are going to look at further strengthening these regulations so we can protect the Chesapeake Bay," Fox said, according to a podcast of the Sept. 17 show on WYPR's Web site.
On that show and in earlier public statements, Fox has noted that while urban and suburban growth pose an increasing problem for the bay, agricultural runoff is a major source of pollution that has resisted solution to date through longstanding government practices of offering to pay farmers to take steps voluntarily to control runoff from their fields and feedlots.
But Fox's broadcast remarks apparently ruffled O'Malley. He said the EPA advisor's comments got "a lot of people in (my) administration scratching their heads." O'Malley contends that Maryland leads other states in efforts to clean up the bay, though experts say there's doubt now about the effectiveness of many steps urged on farmers in all the bay states to curb pollution.
"What we don't want is to have a different set of regulations in Maryland," the governor said, adding that he feared that would lead to growers selling out, "swapping farms for McMansions" on septic systems. "That's not a good swap," he contended.
Farmers generally dislike any regulation, but have chafed particularly at federal oversight. Still, the concentration of large-scale chicken farms on the low-lying Shore poses a special problem, environmental scientists say, because the birds - and the millions of pounds of manure they produce - are relatively close to the bay, where they can easily foul its waters.
The EPA chief replied in writing this week to O'Malley's letter and phone call, explaining that EPA's rules on large poultry and livestock operations are "national in scope and apply uniformly throughout the country." Jackson pledged to give expedited review of state plans for enforcing the federal rules, and said EPA would work with Maryland to improve state efforts to curb runoff from farms and developed lands.
Finally, without directly addressing her aide's remarks, the EPA chief wrote that she preferred letting states like Maryland take the lead in tackling runoff pollution, rather than imposing federal rules specifically for the bay. But she said to avoid such "bay-only'' federal controls, state rules need to be "sufficiently protective" to clean up the Chesapeake.
O'Malley professed himself satisfied after reading the EPA chief's letter, declaring "whatever the national standard is, we want to meet it.... I'm not looking for any back-off." Meanwhile, he suggested, "there's some tension on her team" about how to deal with farm pollution.
Fox declined to comment, saying by email that he'd let his boss's letter speak for itself. EPA and other federal agencies, ordered by President Obama to jump-start the lagging bay restoration, are scheduled to lay out their plan on Nov. 9.
(O'Malley: Sun photo; Jackson: AP photo)