Lancaster County has joined the effort to fight the federal government over dictating what farmers must do to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Lancaster, along with Tioga, Perry, Cambria and Clearfield counties, were included in “friends of the court” filings Monday as the American Farm Bureau Federation and others filed a court appeal in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The AFBF, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and other agriculture and home-building groups seek to overturn a federal district court ruling in September.
There, Judge Sylvia Rambo found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does indeed have the right to impose pollution limits on farmers, as well as state and local governments to clean up the Bay under the federal Clean Water Act.
Farming, fertilizer and homebuilding groups had sued EPA, saying the agency had made a “power grab” and illegally taken control away from the state in setting land-use policies.
They also claimed that EPA is not giving Pennsylvania farmers credit for conservation measures they have made in setting stricter controls on farm practices.
Now, those groups have appealed the September ruling.
After staying out of the original lawsuit, Lancaster County is now part of the lawsuit appeal, not as an intervening party but as a “friend of the court.”
Commissioners Dennis Stuckey and Scott Martin last week made an “administrative decision” to take that action. The matter was not part of a public commissioners meeting.
Commissioner Craig Lehman refused to sign a letter of support to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
“Please accept this letter of our support for the “Friend of Court” brief by counties affected by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL),” states the letter signed by Stuckey and Martin.
“The brief will discuss the nature of the impacts which not only affect farmers, but also all land uses within a county regarding land use changing the use and character of land.”
Stuckey on Monday said he was approached about aiding the lawsuit appeal by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
“We agreed with the appeal in that the EPA has overstepped its bounds and its statutory authority to dictate on the local level what the TMDL loads will be,” he said.
Local municipalities along with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should make those decisions “as opposed to the EPA micromanaging the whole effort,” Stuckey said.
Stuckey stressed that he was not opposed to efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, rather “it’s the overreaching of the EPA,” he said.
Another factor, he said, was his belief that the conservation practices of local farmers to reduce nutrient pollution and soil runoff are not being taken into consideration enough.
“We’re not getting enough credit,” he said.
Stuckey said he consulted Don McNutt, administrator of the Lancaster County Conservation District, who was supportive of the move.
Stuckey said aiding the legal effort will not cost taxpayers. He said the commissioners turned down a request for money to help pay for the court fight.
Commissioner Martin said farmers have been making big strides with best-management practices for years before EPA began issuing mandates.
“I’m bothered about EPA going after various segments. The locals know how best to do this,” he said.
McNutt said he supports the court challenge of EPA primarily because the computer models that EPA uses to determine what will be required of Pennsylvania agriculture woefully underestimates the amount of conservation measures farmers already have done.
“Here in Lancaster County, for every one best-management practice paid for by the state or the feds, there are about five more that have been done on the farmer’s own nickel,” McNutt said.
These voluntary conservation measures are not considered in pollution limits because the computer model only counts measures made with state or federal aid, McNutt contended.
“So, in our minds, it’s a little premature to have restrictive regulations based on a model that is not fully developed yet.
“That’s the overstep the Farm Bureau has challenged.”
Commissioner Lehman said he did not go along with Lancaster County aiding the court case against EPA because he thinks the court decision in September that ruled in favor of EPA “is on solid legal ground and the probability of success is extremely low.”
Lehman commended farmers for “stepping up” to improve water quality against tremendous federal pressure and he said he believes their efforts will show up in revised computer models.
But he said if the court challenge is successful, “haven’t you really said to those farmers that what they did didn’t matter?
“I don’t want to do anything that undermines the work of farmers here in Lancaster County,” he said.
In addition to the five Pennsylvania counties that filed their support for the American Farm Bureau Federation case, there were two counties from West Virginia and one from Delaware.
Also, the attorneys general from 21 states in the Mississippi River Basin became friends of the court.