As the Sun Sets on Sunshine Week in Maryland

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Authors: Food and Water Watch

By Michele Merkel & Scott Edwards

Ag Pollution“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, 1913

This Saturday, March 16th, marks the end of Sunshine Week across the nation. This weeklong celebration of open government was established in 2005 to help counter the increasing level of secrecy under which our federal and state government seem to be operating. Sunshine Week was created with the recognition that transparency in government is vital for any nation to claim to be a true democracy, ruled by an informed citizenry making informed decisions. The ideal of open government forms the basis for one of our most important protections against tyranny: the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with agribusiness and its pollution in Maryland, sunlight is a disinfectant that our policymakers want nothing to do with.

Take the latest agribusiness bill to be introduced in the state legislature this year. Next Tuesday there will be a Senate hearing on Senate Bill 1029, entitled “Agricultural Certainty,” or Ag Certainty for short, a bill that was introduced by Senator Thomas Middleton, who has been a member of the state Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government since 2011. Ag Certainty purports to create yet another incentive for the state’s more than 5000 agricultural operations to enact some pollution abatement measures that most of them are required to adhere to anyway. Getting these facilities to stop their polluting ways is critical given the fact that agriculture remains the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Bay watershed. In exchange for agreeing to try to stop polluting our waterways, the bill grants agricultural operations 10 years of immunity from future pollution abatement measures.

Although some recent press articles have indicated a “split” among environmental organizations in the region on the bill, the fact is there is no “split.” Twenty-one organizations including Food & Water Watch, Environment Maryland, Maryland Sierra Club, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and many others stand united in opposition to this bill. To date, only one environmental organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has expressed support.

The very terms of the bill are troubling enough, but perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that the bill counters everything we want in a transparent and open system of government; it embraces and expands the secrecy of agricultural pollution records in the state of Maryland. Where every other industry in the state is required to make public all records related to discharges of pollutants, monitoring and sampling results, and waste disposal practices in the spirit of clean water and open government, SB 1029 requires that any pollution records submitted to the Maryland Departments of Agriculture and the Environment be kept out of the hands of the very public who funds most of these pollution management practices.

Industry’s fight to keep its operations in the dark is not limited to inducing legislators to enact undemocratic laws. Many of you may remember during the Perdue trial how Food & Water Watch exposed the improper relationship between Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Perdue’s General Counsel Herb Frerichs.

Just this past Monday, on the very first working day of Sunshine Week, Frerichs sent an email to several of his industry colleagues denouncing the fact that Maryland citizens represented by the Maryland Law School Clinic were seeking Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations from the Department of Environment under the state’s Public Information Act. These pollution management documents are paid for with taxpayer dollars and kept on file by the Agency, as are many other records, all of which are subject to the state’s public information laws.

In the email Frerichs claims, “This is a clear attack on MD’s poultry industry and has nothing to do with academic freedom and student education. When will the Law School be held accountable?” he asks.

Perdue’s efforts to keep their dirty dealings in the dark took an even more bizarre turn on the floor of the legislature this week when the House passed a budget amendment to move $300,000 from the state’s Contingent Fund to Perdue’s co-defendants in the case, the Hudsons. This was purportedly to pay for legal costs even though the court determined that pollution was coming off the Hudson Farm and reaching the Pocomoke River. Hudson admitted during trial that he submitted false and inaccurate information to MDA and USDA. Obviously, Frerich’s message to punish the Clinic reached the ears of legislators. Yesterday, rumors swirled around the Senate that a budget amendment would be introduced to move Law School funding, not Contingent Funding, to the Hudsons.

For a Perdue representative to complain about holding someone “accountable” for exercising their rights under the state open government laws is ludicrous. “Accountable” is not a word anyone with Perdue should toss around lightly as big poultry companies walk away from the thousands of tons of chicken manure dumped by their birds on the Eastern Shore of Maryland every year. Perhaps the right accountability question is, “When are the poultry integrators going to be held accountable for the mess they’ve created in the Bay and in other waterways across the country?”

Open government and sunshine laws are the enemy of only those who have good reason to operate in the dark. And when it comes to polluting our waterways, agribusiness is at the top of the list of those who have the most to hide. They should not find such willing co-conspirators in our elected officials.

 

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