Thursday, March 26, 2015

Unanimous House, Senate Send Manure Bill To Governor's Desk

The House and Senate on Wednesday finished up work on the legislature's most significant proposal to date aimed at starving off toxic algae that has increasingly plagued Lake Erie in recent years.  The bill (SB 1*) cleared the lower chamber without opposition before the Senate unanimously concurred with the House's revisions, forwarding the measure on to Gov. John Kasich to sign into law.

Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer said the legislation includes many of the administration's proposals aimed at protecting the Lake Erie watershed.  "Now that Ohio has put into place new regulations and training on the proper application of nutrients to reduce runoff, these latest reforms will help us strengthen our efforts to protect water quality by keeping fertilizers and manure off snow, frozen and saturated ground, working with farmers who need assistance, and giving us the ability to get bad actors into compliance. Ohio's fight against algae isn't over, but these reforms will certainly help," he said in a statement.

A central feature of the bill - and the one that provoked lengthy deliberations between the House, Senate, administration and agricultural groups - is a proposal to regulate the application of livestock manure on farm fields.  The bill passed the House without opposition and after minimal debate.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Hill (R-Zanesville-represents Guernsey County) pointed to a broad base of support that includes the major industry groups as well as environmental interests.  The farming groups' sign-off show that agriculture "wants to be part of the solution" to the algae problem the bill addresses in several ways, such as manure regulations, future dredging limits and a three-year review of its effectiveness, he said.  Mr. Hill lauded the extensive negotiations over matters such as farmers' compliance that resulted in a solid compromise package.

Rep. Jim Buchy (R-Greenville), sponsor of the House companion measure called the measure a first "right step to reduce the impact of nutrient loading" that is occurring in Lake Erie, mainly through phosphorus flowing from the Detroit and Maumee rivers.  "This is a frontal assault from all of us," he said, referring to U.S. farmers as the top environmental stewards in the world because they understand the importance of soil, water than air to their livelihoods.

Rep. John Patterson (D-Jefferson) also called the bill a reasonable compromise, recalling some "agonizing moments" over enforcement and other details.  "To think that the Ohio Environmental Council and the Ohio Republican Party are on the same page is remarkable," he said.
Prior to the Senate's concurrence vote, joint sponsor Sen. Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) said the House's revisions produced "a stronger, more meaningful bill."

Earlier in the day, House and Senate leaders held a news conference to publicize the bill and applaud each other's hard work on reaching what Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) said was one of the most difficult issues the legislature has tackled in years.  "The benefits of having a clean Lake Erie are certainly worth the fight and something we will continue to push forward on," he said, alluding to a message that was repeated throughout the event - that more measure is only one step in the legislature's effort to address the toxic algae problem.

Sen. Faber also said the agriculture community is doing its part and now other industries need to contribute to the solution.  "As somebody who represents the largest agricultural district in the state, we continue to be very concerned to make sure that agriculture is viable, but viability should not be confused with a lack of environmental stewardship. And excessive use of chemical fertilizers or organic fertilizers is unacceptable. And this bill will make meaningful changes into that process," he said.  While restrictions on spreading livestock manure have gotten the most attention, Sen. Gardner said agricultural regulations comprise only two out of six major components of the bill.

In addition to the ban on applying fertilizer and manure to frozen and saturated soil, the revised bill includes a provision that would crack down on the "so-called manure loophole," he said, pointing to an amendment that would require anyone spreading waste transferred from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) to follow the same regulations.

Sen. Gardner said the four other non-agricultural parts of the legislation would:

  • Restrict the disposal of dredging material in open Lake Erie by 2020.
  • Require wastewater treatment plants to monitor phosphorus discharge.
  • Create a new coordinator of harmful algal bloom management and response position to help organize local response efforts.
  • Update the Healthy Lake Erie Fund to advance soil testing, tributary testing, animal waste abatement initiatives and other conservation measures for farmers.

Primary co-sponsor Sen. Bob Peterson (R-Sabina) said the final version emerged from the House with the most stringent combination of regulations to combat toxic algae.  "This is the toughest version of any of the bills we've seen," he said.

Nonetheless, lawmakers say it's impossible to know how much of an impact the bill will actually have on Ohio's toxic algal blooms.  Sen. Gardner said there were too many variables, like the weather in future years, to be able to quantify how much the proposal will reduce phosphorus runoff flowing into Lake Erie.  "I know people are looking for precise answers as to what exactly will happen with this legislation. We know it's another step in the right direction, we know its meaningful, but until you tell me what the temperatures are, what the wind direction is, what the rainfall events are, it's just impossible to know what kind of impact this might have on the lake," he said.

Sen. Faber called the bill a "major component" in addressing the issue.  "But in the end, its a multifaceted problem, and until we can get our friends in Indiana and Michigan and Canada to also address this is some of the same ways, we're going to continue to have issues," he said.
Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) noted that the Kasich administration is already discussing a broader algae-fighting approach with leaders in other states.

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