Editorial: Larry Hogan’s PMT and the Chesapeake Bay

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As Maryland’s General Assembly winds up its work for 2015, it is still way too early to assess Governor Larry Hogan’s overall environmental record, but it can be said that it is turning out to be something quite different from what many had predicted during the 2014 election.

During the campaign Larry Hogan was painted, quite effectively it seems, as someone who would pull many of the conservation initiatives and policies enacted during the Martin O’Malley administration. Hogan was cast as one who would be a careless steward of the Chesapeake Bay and a friend of big agriculture.

And nowhere was this more in evidence than the fate of the phosphorus management tool (PMT), Maryland’s template to have farmers reduce their use of phosphorus and limit how much manure could be used for their fields.

Many conservation organizations had good cause for concern. Hogan repeatedly vowed that he would put a freeze on the PMT rollout. The idea of railroading these hard-won policy changes, some of them taking up to eight years of planning to implement, gave rise to profound pessimism within the conservation ranks.

And yet even with a full court press on Hogan’s environmental positions, the Maryland voter didn’t seem to share the same level of worry when they elected him governor in November. Nonetheless, there remained grave concerns that the change of administrations would delay, or even eliminate, the implementation of an essential strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphate contaminants in the Bay.

Not so surprising was the heightened anxiety after Hogan took office. The new governor, as promised, quickly imposed a moratorium on the PMT. And, just as predictably, Maryland’s environmental organizations quickly responded with attacks on Hogan and his commitment to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) announced that, “Governor Hogan’s decision has hurt the rivers and streams on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” The Clean Agriculture Coalition suggested that Hogan had “turned his back on clean water and sound science.”

Typically, the story ends there. The new governor would keep the PMT in the “policy review” freezer while conservation organizations would continue to cry foul through the media.

But the story did not end there. Within days of fulfilling his campaign obligation to put the PMT policy on review, Hogan not only immediately gathered his own policy makers to create a new plan, he invited the same organizations that had been highly critical of him to help determine its outcome.

This turn of events came as a surprise to most Chesapeake Bay stakeholders. Not only was Hogan not suffering from “willful ignorance” on the condition of the Bay, and the root causes of its pollution, he purposely sought out the opposition to resolve the issue.

Within two months, Hogan had reached agreement that a new PMT would move forward with four primary changes from the original plan:

1) Ensure adequate time for farmers to fully understand and plan for new requirements, shifting the seven-year implementation of the PMT one year later, effective 2016, with full implementation in 2022.

2) Assure agricultural producers that critical elements are available for implementation, including: markets to relocate additional amounts of manure; adequate infrastructure to handle and transport manure; and alternative uses and new technologies to begin to provide new outlets and markets for animal manures.

3) Enact a ban of additional phosphorus on soils highest in phosphorus. Fields with a soil Fertility Index Value (FIV) of 500 or greater will be banned from receiving additional phosphorus until the PMT is fully implemented.

4) Provide comprehensive information on soil phosphorus conditions statewide. Soil test phosphorus data will be collected for all farms in Maryland.This data will provide the Maryland Department of Agriculture with accurate soil fertility rates to monitor phosphorus levels and help identify potential areas to redistribute newly available manure.

Nothing earth-shattering can be detected in those modifications, and yet as a result, a real consensus was built with all interested parties to allow the implementation of the PMT to move forward.

To the credit of those participants, these organizations came out of these negotiations with high praise for Larry Hogan. CBF quickly issued a statement noting that “these revised regulations represent progress toward reducing pollution from agriculture — which we absolutely must do to protect the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways, as well as public health… We thank the Hogan Administration for listening to our concerns and trying to address them.”

Rarely do debates on the environment and bay restoration turn out happily these days.  When it does, it not only removes the toxicity and finger pointing that comes with differing views, but sets the stage for further progress down the road.  If Governor Hogan can continue this kind of leadership during his full term as governor, bipartisan support to restore the Chesapeake Bay can become a reality again.

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