A bold and controversial initiative, with a strong Lancaster County connection, has been launched in the Legislature that would dramatically shift how Pennsylvania strives to meet its deadline to reduce nutrients and sediment from agriculture that pollute the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the Major Watershed Improvement Act, the plan to stem nutrient runoff would move away from piecemeal financial aid going to farmers, new mandatory stormwater management regulations in all municipalities and sewage-plant upgrades.
Instead, the state would seek competitive bids from the public and private sectors for nutrient-reduction technologies, then agree to the long-term purchase of nutrient “credits” from the winners — likely large-scale manure-treatment facilities where farmers would have to transport their excess manure.
Senate Bill 994 is co-sponsored by state Sen. Lloyd Smucker of West Lampeter Township and Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon, who represents part of Lancaster County. Lancaster County’s other state senator, Mike Brubaker of Warwick Township, helped vote the bill out of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee on June 11 by an 8-3 vote.
The bill also is backed by the newly formed Coalition for an Affordable Bay Solution. Manheim-based Kreider Farms, a large dairy operation, is a founding member.
Backers say the current approach to meeting the state’s commitment to a federally mandated “pollution diet” is not cost-effective and results in low-value solutions.
A competitive bidding process would result in funding of low-cost remedies that would have verified reductions in nutrients, they say.
“We have no choice but to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment,” Brubaker said Monday, June 17. “How to do it at the least cost to the taxpayer — that’s where innovation is very, very important.”
Such innovative technologies exist now, bill proponents say, but they need financial support to ramp up to large-scale use.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Elder Vogel, of Beaver County, said the legislation acts on recommendations made in two recent reports.
A Chesapeake Bay Commission study concludes that verified nutrient reductions from agriculture would significantly reduce costs for meeting Pennsylvania’s commitment, Vogel said.
In addition, a Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report released in January concludes that a competitive-bid process for funding proven technologies could reduce nutrient compliance costs by up to 80 percent, according to Vogel.
But the private Chesapeake Bay Foundation last week sent its members an urgent alert to defeat the bill and on June 17 urged all senators to do the same.
“This bill threatens to derail current clean water restoration efforts and divert critical funding from proven, science-based clean water practices endorsed by CBF, in favor of proprietary, corporate-backed technologies that cost three times as much,” the alert said.
“It’s about siphoning millions of taxpayer dollars to a handful of corporate entities.”
The bill was amended to protect funding already appropriated for traditional conservation programs, and other changes were made.
But CBF says the bill is still “fundamentally flawed.”
In an interview, Harry Campbell, executive director of the Pennsylvania office of CBF, said he is not rejecting the idea of investing in proven technologies that could help Pennsylvania meet its goal.
But, for starters, he said there was not enough public input from all affected parties about the bill.
“It just needs to have further contemplation and conversation. We have a lot more to talk about,” he said.
Decades of investment in current proven efforts are beginning to pay off for a cleaner bay and local streams, and “maintaining the momentum is essential,” he said.
One specific concern is that the manure-treatment technologies being contemplated would affect nitrogen but not phosphorus and sediment, which he called “the leading cause of impairment in our own backyard.”
He suggested that such technologies should be supported by Pennsylvania’s existing nutrient-trading program, in which nutrient reductions on farms or sewage plants or manure digesters earn trading credits that can then be sold to those required to reduce nutrients.
But he said he has concerns about the state requiring a new direction that might or might not be better for farmers in the long run.
“This is not a magic bullet,” he said. “It’s a tool to put in the tool box.”