(Posted by Scott Edwards.)
When it comes to big agribusiness and access to public information, the Chesapeake region is sadly part of a disturbing pattern that exists all across the country. And signs are it might be getting even worse.
Polluting industries are generally subject to a good amount of public transparency and disclosure about their practices, what types of materials they handle, how they dispose of their wastes, etc. Unfortunately, agribusiness has always enjoyed a level of state-sponsored secrecy that serves to undermine this general right of public access. The poor excuses for concealment offered by state departments of agriculture and environment and industry range from national security to trade secrets or, more often than not, no excuse at all.
Take Maryland, for example. With Maryland’s Water Quality Improvement Act (WQIA) in 1998, farms were required to get and put on file with state agencies Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) that document how much waste is being produced on their facilities and dumped on the land to grow their crops. It was certainly a step in the right direction—at the time NMPs represented the only method to ensure that harmful nutrients were being used in proper amounts on croplands. It was a long-needed measure to bring some semblance of responsibility to the ag industry. But then, during the WQIA negotiations with industry things took a very wrong turn.
First, instead of these environmental protection records going to the Maryland Department of the Environment, whose mission it is to safeguard our waterways, the WQIA gave them over to the Department of Agriculture, whose job it is to ensure that ag gets to operate with as few regulatory burdens as possible. Second, in open disregard for Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA), the WQIA embraced provisions that kept the NMPs secret documents—out of the hands of concerned citizens and, even, away from other state agencies. Not even the Attorney General of Maryland was allowed to view farm NMP’s under the WQIA.
That changed when Waterkeeper Alliance and many of our local Chesapeake programs sued the Maryland Department of Agriculture back in 2008 for refusing to turn over NMP’s under a Public Information Act request. For the first time, a state judge declared NMPs to be public documents. Since then Waterkeeper and our local partners have sought more public documents related to farms and their waste disposal practices. And, despite our victory, the Farm Bureau keeps fighting to keep us all in a deep, dark hole about ag waste practices—they’ve filed legal challenges to all our requests.
It’s a continual battle to bring about the transparency which should be a given. And now agribusiness’s attempt to cover up their harmful practices is reaching new levels of absurdity. In Iowa, the state House recently passed a bill that makes it a criminal act to take a picture while on a farm without the farmer’s permission. Not to be outdone, Florida has jumped over the crazy line with both feet. There, a Republican state senator recently proposed a bill that makes it a 1st degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, to take a photo of a farm even if you’re standing on a public road when you click the shudder.
If agribusiness put as much energy and resources into keeping a tight lid on their pollution as they do on keeping a tight lid on public awareness of their improper waste disposal practices, we just might have a cleaner and healthier Chesapeake Bay.