Wednesday, June 12, 2013

With Algae Season Looming, Policymakers Unveil Plans To Ramp Up Efforts At Farm Fertilizer Oversight

Statehouse News   Directors of three state agencies told lawmakers Tuesday they back legislation to address farm runoff-fed algae blooms in Ohio lakes with an approach described as a balance between environmental concerns and agricultural industry profits.  The plan presented in concept form to the Senate Agriculture Committee - a bill introduction is pending this week - would on one hand expand government oversight and monitoring of farm fertilizers both natural and artificial, and on the other allow for private sector involvement in and the shielding of public records of farmers' "nutrient management plans."
Sen. Cliff Hite (R-Findlay), the committee chairman and bill sponsor along with Sen. Bob Peterson (R-Sabina), said Rep. Jim Buchy (R-Greenville) would carry companion legislation in the House.

Chairman Hite said the bill would not be rushed. He plans to vet it during the summer and hold hearings in the fall, he said, adding that he had already received several "white papers" on the issue from a variety of interest groups.  "I know this bill is going to be a big issue, so we need to get it right," Mr. Hite said.

Relaying their support for the package to the committee on Tuesday were Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer, Department of Agriculture Director David Daniels and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Nally. (Testimony)

Mr. Zehringer said the initiative stems from the report of an Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group, which addressed the range of issues that have come to the forefront as the state has battled large algal blooms in Lake Erie and elsewhere, most notably at Grand Lake St. Marys.  While no new regulation will improve water quality overnight, he said, moving forward with the workgroup recommendations will help make a "measureable difference over the long run."  "In the short term, it is imperative that we act soon after what has been happening recently in Lake Erie," Mr. Zehringer said. "Over the last several years there has been a noticeable and significant increase in the severity and frequency of algal blooms which have occurred in Lake Erie, attracting unfortunate statewide and national attention."  "We must maintain the ecological integrity of Lake Erie and its economic importance without putting over-burdensome regulations on Ohio's farmers. It is our duty to balance the health of Lake Erie and the profitability of our state's agriculture."

The bill as currently drafted would:

  • Expand groups that develop Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) for farmers to include the private sector along with current government entities such as local soil and water districts and ODNR's Division of Soil and Water.
  • Broaden the definition of "nutrient" in state regulations to include commercially manufactured fertilizers, as ODNR's current oversight authority is largely limited to livestock manure.
  • Exempt farming NMPs submitted to the state from Ohio's Open Records Laws, which Mr. Zehringer said would mirror a federal exemption.
  • Restructure the Soil & Water Resource Commission by replacing two voting members from ODA and Ohio State University's College of Agriculture with farmer members.
  • Create a Fertilizer Applicator Licensing program with certification and continuing education requirements focused on best management practices.
  • Increase fertilizer data collection to include information on the amount and location of sales.

Speaking to the latter two provisions, Director Daniels said he wanted o underscore that Ohio farmers are not the only source of phosphorus entering Lake Erie.  "Nonetheless, we do know that the land application of commercial fertilizer and livestock manure is a contributing factor," he said.  "This is a complex problem and there are still many unanswered questions but I believe that Ohio farmers understand the problem and want to be a part of the solution. They are stewards of the land. They care about the environment. It is the foundation of their business and their survival."  Mr. Daniels said farmers "understand that it is time to rethink the way we have been used to doing things" to preserve water quality and the public health. "This bill is a tool the state will use to help them do that," he said.  Proposals for the bill have been circulating among stakeholders and have already prompted some concerns based on questions raised by some panelists. The directors' responses indicated some changes have already been made prior to the bill's official introduction.

For example, Sen. Lou Gentile (D-Steubenville) said local soil and water districts had raised funding issues, particularly for distressed watersheds. Mr. Zehringer said the administration had backed away from some of its original proposals but wanted to focus resources to trouble spots such as Mercer County.

Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Copley Twp.) said local soil and water officials with amiable relationships with farmers had expressed concerns that additional oversight would negatively impact those relationships. The lawmaker also questioned whether there should be exemptions for smaller operations in the measure.

Director Zehringer said the only alternative to local oversight would be state purview. "We need to be firm on some of these issues," he said.

As for a small farm exemption, the director said he would recommend that all operations adopt NMPs regardless of size. "Everybody needs to be aware of where nutrients are going, whether big or small," he said.

Sen. Peterson, a farmer by trade, applauded the open records exemption in the bill, opining that NMPs could be considered "trade secrets" and their disclosure could impact a farmer's competitive advantage.

Responding to concerns that farmers in particular and various regions of the state are being cast in a bad light because of the algae problem, the directors said the bill would be part of a broader approach that would apply to all areas of the state.

"As the agency responsible for developing the state nutrient management plan to submit to the federal government, Ohio EPA realizes this is not just a non-point source issue," Director Nally said in testimony.
"This is an issue all of us must work on together from both the point source - businesses, homeowners and municipalities.

No comments:

Post a Comment