Concerns Remain Over ‘Safe Harbor’
Stakeholders Not Convinced Voluntary Bay Plan Will Work
Posted: September 24, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Questions continue to surround a new state policy that would exempt participating farmers from nine years of pollution reduction requirements.
About 100 comments came in over the past few weeks during the public comment period on the state’s resource management plan program, which contains the “safe harbor” provision.
The public comment period ended earlier this month.
While more than 70 of those comments were essentially identical and came through Richmond-based Virginia Conservation Network, several came from local ag leaders.
Most comments mirror concerns industry leaders have had from the beginning. Namely: Will farmers actually participate in the voluntary program?
And, if so, will those efforts allow the state to reach Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals?
The proposed program would grant farmers safe harbor from future pollution reduction requirements for nine years in return for voluntarily creating and maintaining resource management plans. It’s being pushed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The program is part of an ongoing effort to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia, along with five other states and Washington, D.C., is included in a 2010 mandate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of pollution reaching the bay.
The EPA has charged those jurisdictions with reducing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that enter the watershed by 20 to 25 percent by 2025.
The vast majority of comments that poured into the DCR office questioned how close the program would actually bring the state toward those goals.
“The effect of lots of farmers doing this ought to be that the water quality goals the state has set for agriculture are met,” said Nathan Lott, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network during a phone interview Wednesday. “We really, at this point, don’t know if it would or wouldn’t [have that effect].”
John Blair Reeves, who identified himself as an engineer in Rockingham County in his written comment submitted during the program’s public comment period, expressed that concern as well.
He also pointed out that, at the time of his writing, few of those who commented were farmers.
“[I] suggest allowing more time here and much more [outreach] to the farming stakeholders — are farmers really going to support doing these [resource management plans],” he wondered.
While Jeff Kelble, head of the advocacy group Shenandoah Riverkeeper, applauds the program in many respects, he questions whether enough farmers would participate.
“The Safe Harbor ‘carrot’ of nine years is unlikely to be enough of an incentive to drive overwhelming participation in the full … process which is what would be required to meet Bay reduction goals,” he wrote in an online comment.
He also expressed concern over the safe harbor provision in general.
“Shenandoah Riverkeeper is completely opposed to the idea that any pollution source could receive a safe harbor without guarantees that their reductions would guarantee water quality standards are met,” he wrote. “I see no calculations, scientific evidence or even any reasoning in the record that would indicate water quality standards will be met.”
Several industry leaders also have said DCR hasn’t adequately gotten the word out about this program.
Ann Jennings, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she’s heard that concern “loud and clear.”
“I was disappointed that there wasn’t more interaction during the public meetings,” she said, referring to a series of meetings held across the state during the past couple months, including one in Verona.
David Fuller, chairman of Verona-based Friends of the North Fork, wrote in an online comment that he was surprised to learn the meeting wasn’t publicly advertised.
“The meeting did nothing but reinforce the skepticism and distrust that farmers feel toward government officials,” he wrote.
To view all the online comments, visit www.townhall.Virginia.gov and search for “Resource Management Plan.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org