(Oct. 24, 2014) Phosphorus became an unlikely campaign issue this year after the state threatened to impose harsh restrictions on farmers based on the presence of the chemical element in fertilizer used to grow crops on the Eastern Shore.
Salisbury University professor Dr. Memo Diriker submitted a study to the Maryland Department of Agriculture last week on the potential economic impact of the restrictions, and, although it has yet to go public, both candidates for the District 38 Maryland Senate seat began weighing in on the subject.
Democratic Sen. Jim Mathias, the current District 38 representative, said he fought to stall legislation on the issue until the state conducted the impact study.
“It’s certainly deeper than an election issue,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve been fighting for over a year.”
Environmental groups theorized that runoff from farms containing high levels of phosphorus damage the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other area waterways. Mathias said he helped delay legislative hearings on fast tracking proposed phosphorus management tool legislation that would limit the types and amounts of fertilizer farmers could utilize.
“We got the public hearings scheduled and we had three hearings, one in Salisbury one in Easton and one in Frederick, and we had around 1,000 farmers come out all told,” he said. “After that I went ahead and put a bill in to require an economic impact study to be done. We were able to secure that language in the budget towards that end – the MDA couldn’t spend any money implementing phosphorus management until the economic impact study was done.”
Republican Del. Mike McDermott, currently representing District 38B, discounted the study, saying the Martin O’Malley administration would be undeterred by its findings, no matter what they were.
“The folks that were jumping up and down thinking that the impact study is going to save the Eastern Shore and our economy – that’s really shortsighted,” he said. “I don’t particularly trust the O’Malley administration to adhere or understand the dynamic that the study would reveal about our economy and the impact that it could have.”
The study, which neither candidate has seen, includes more than 4,200 pages of data.
Mathias said the premise of the study was that PMT implementation would be “disastrous” for farmers.
“This is an issue that’s absolutely fundamental to the Eastern Shore economy, and I’m working hard to make sure it’s done right,” he said.
McDermott said the General Assembly often conducts studies that lead to little or no positive results.
“We’ve studied how to be business friendly, we’ve studied our death taxes and inheritance tax rates, we’ve studied our income rate – we’ve done all of this in bipartisan fashion, and yet we haven’t really implemented any of these considerations that have come out of these studies,” he said. “This is a fairly limited impact study. It looked at different things down here, but the real challenge is to understand the impact in the entire state of Maryland – how it’s going to impact things.”
McDermott believes O’Malley is “on a rush” to pass legislation on the PMT before his term expires, but allowed that it would likely be shelved until after the November election.
“I think the election itself puts an interesting twist on this, because you’ve got Democrats that are worried how they’re going to appear when the governor that represents them moves in this direction,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re going to hear anything out of his office officially until after Nov. 4.”
Mathias said if he and others on the state level had not stepped in, legislation would have already passed.
“Our leadership was able to stop it, cause the public hearings, cause the budget language to be inserted and passed and, by the way, my opponent voted against the budget,” he said. “The language and the actions that got us to where we are now have been going on since last summer. I’m working as steadfastly and as effectively as a possibly can. “What caused the economic impact study and what caused us to not allow the Maryland Department of Agriculture to expend any money implementing a phosphorus management tool was the language that I put in the budget over in the senate,” Mathias continued. “I voted for that and my opponent voted against it.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation addressed phosphorus in a study released earlier this month, suggesting runoff from farms harmed the bay. The study touted the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint as a way to clean the bay and add $22.5 billion in annual revenue. If not implemented, the study suggested, pollution loads would increase and the state would lose $5.6 billion in annual revenue.
“It basically said if you clean the bay up here’s how much money you make by the cleaning of the bay,” McDermott said. “They alluded to some kind of environmental impact of getting a clean and healthy bay. What they didn’t include in their study is the actual cost to do what they want to do. That kind of negates it. If you tell me I’m going to make $5.9 billion more in my economy if I have a clean bay, but you don’t tell me it’s going cost me $20 billion to get there, then exactly what was your point?”
While McDermott labeled the findings as a “counter study,” Mathias insisted, “both sides are equally committed to the health of the bay as well as the long term economic viability of the region.”
Farmers, Mathias said, have already succeeded in reducing their “Total Maximum Daily Load” under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clear Water Act.
“They’ve met 110 percent of their goals,” he said. “I think we should be able to get the most vital agricultural community (possible) as well as clean water. What we’re striving to find is that balance and how we can do that. Certainly there isn’t anyone in the room who doesn’t want a healthy bay and clearly we want a strong agriculture and all the subsidiaries that go along with it.”
McDermott believes factors other than farming are bigger contributors to Chesapeake Bay pollution.
“If water quality on the lower side of the bay is superior to the water quality on the upper side on the metro core, perhaps we should be looking at those areas first instead of looking down here,” he said. “If we could eliminate that, that’s probably about 60-70 percent of your problem. It’s worthy of us looking at it and trying to focus on it before we try to fix a three percent problem on the Eastern Shore.”
McDermott believes O’Malley will use the bay foundation’s study to intimidate legislatures into passing a less restrictive reform bill.
“When he sits down at the table he’ll want people to come in there and he’ll say, ‘Hey, can we implement it, but we’ll delay it over time if we don’t make the impact as significant in the first couple of years? Can you buy into that?’ McDermott said, “And they’ll look for people to cave and accept, instead of a three-foot advance, a one-foot advance. It’s like dialectic – it’s almost like the way folks used to conquer a nation. They’d come in and take two thirds of a county, give you back a third and say, ‘Okay, are you satisfied?’ That’s the way they approach the Eastern Shore.”
Working in tandem with local, state and federal agencies, suggested Mathias, often leads to the best solution.
“We’re doing our part here and I’m working to make sure the rest of the state is held accountable as well as other states to the best of our ability,” he said. “We’re looking for the best management tools and the best management practices available.”
McDermott said the Eastern Shore delegation should support farmers regardless of party lines, and accused Mathias of being too willing to compromise.
“Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative you should understand the need to protect our economy from these types of attacks,” he said. “If I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of protecting the farms and our economic interests and viability. I don’t want to err on the other side because the cost is just too great to bear. Environmental impact aside, you can’t just throw all this out there and say, ‘We’ll work it out.’
“There are times when you cannot compromise, and I think I’d probably disagree with the senator on that,” McDermott continued. “There are areas like this where accepting compromise or making these implementations by any measure when they have not proven the science or they haven’t shown the percentage that we’re causing the problem – to compromise from a position where you lack knowledge – that’s not a wise decision to make. He’s probably more willing to compromise and work something out as opposed to saying, ‘prove it’ first so we know what the facts are before we move forward. I don’t want to move forward without knowledge, because you’re going to get a really crappy solution.”
Mathias said voters would ultimately have to decide, “Who was able to accomplish what through leadership.”
“I know where we were well over a year ago in the summer of 2014,” he said. “I knew this was coming down the track at a high rate of speed, well on its way to happening. I know how the emergency regulations got canceled. I know how the public hearings got scheduled. I know how the farming community came together on the Eastern Shore. I know how, when we got to Annapolis, the bills that were put in. I know how we were able to get language successfully in the budget. I know who voted for the budget and who didn’t vote for the budget. I know how this economic impact study is on the verge of being released and when it’s released, it has to go to the budget committees for their review. That I know, and I know how all that happened. And I haven’t heard the word ‘compromise’ here.
“I know who my partners have been to get us this far, and I know it’s come through effective leadership,” Mathias continued. “Someone may say this is an election year issue or an election issue – this is an absolute critical, fundamental everyday issue for our family farms and our family farm community here on the Eastern Shore. That’s what I fight for every day and that’s what I’ll continue to fight for.”