Washington Insider-- Tuesday

USGS and Environmental Impacts

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

China, U.S. Wrap Up Bilateral Trade Discussions

U.S. and Chinese officials met over several days last week in Washington and came away with an agreement outlining a number of issue on which they plan to work, with the goal of improving bilateral trade. The forum for the discussions was the latest U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Among other things, the two sides agreed to steps designed to improve the security of container shipping at more Chinese ports, to undertake talks that involve science and management of fisheries and aquaculture, and to China's commitment to boost transparency in banking regulations for information communications technology.

Many of the issues on which the two sides agreed to work are highly technical matters involving trade. Additional discussions in the future are expected to contribute to the continually evolving bilateral relationship and to China's ongoing process of integrating itself into the global economic community.


Canada Reportedly Considering Compensating Farmers for Losses Due to Trade Agreement

Media reports from Canada indicate that the government is considering proposals to compensate the nation's dairy, egg and poultry producers if they suffer economic harm as a result of provisions of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Those three industries, which are covered by Canadian supply management programs, are heavily protected by federal tariffs, with prices additionally supported by restrictions on domestic production.

The price for Canada's entry into the TPP is expected to include allowing more duty-free dairy and poultry imports from countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, meaning that producers of the supply managed commodities and stand to lose out financially if the TPP requires lower tariffs in the future.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government would prefer to keep the subject of the TTP talks low-key until after Canada's next national election this October. Asked last weekend about the possibility of a compensation package for Canadian farmers, International Trade Minister Ed Fast called such reports "speculation." However, Fast did not deny that such a package was under consideration.


Washington Insider: USGS and Environmental Impacts

While much of the farm press has been upset about the Environmental Protection Agency's clean water rule and the definitions of its regulatory responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, a new study by a prestigious federal organization has reported "measurable effects" on water quality in eastern North Carolina.

Many agricultural groups see EPA's new rule as allowing the agency onto their land and encouraging environmental group-led citizen lawsuits that promise to extend the rule's reach "beyond what even the EPA had envisioned." The result has been growing support for legislative efforts to constrain EPA's rulemaking authority and reduce its budgets.

At the same time, new concerns about U.S. water quality appear to be raising pressures for additional interventions. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey reported last week that most agricultural watershed groups with concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina had higher median concentrations of nutrients such as ammonia, nitrates and nitrites and nitrogen as well as chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium ions than watersheds without such farms. Of note, however, is that more than a quarter of the watersheds evaluated showed no measureable effects from animal manure, despite the presence of upstream confined animal feeding operations, the USGS said.

Stephen Harden, a USGS hydrologist and lead author of the report, said an unexpected finding in the sampling in the 18 watersheds evaluated was that there were no significant differences found in phosphorus levels between watersheds with and without animal operations.

However the study did conclude that elevated levels of nutrients in streams have contributed to water quality problems in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse river basins of eastern North Carolina, particularly in the estuaries.

Hog farms typically manage waste in storage lagoons, and wastewater is sprayed on nearby fields, with certain restrictions. North Carolina has banned the permitting of new hog waste lagoons and spray fields as primary management systems since 2007 and otherwise regulates waste application and discharges at swine farms.

The study's conclusions were contested by the North Carolina Pork Council. Deborah Johnson, chief executive officer for the organization said last week that "Water quality issues do not stem from a single source," and that collaboration is needed to effectively address them.

A representative of the Southern Environmental Law Center, an environmental group, disagreed with the pork growers' assessment. "The report confirms what citizens of North Carolina living near industrial hog facilities know: that spraying millions of gallons of hog waste on agricultural fields pollutes waters that we depend on for drinking, fishing, boating, and swimming," Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center told the press.

"It is long past time for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a cooperating partner on this report, to accept that these facilities pollute our creeks and rivers and to implement meaningful standards to protect those who live downstream," he said.

Susan Massengale, water quality spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources told the press that no rulemaking currently is under way for animal operations, other than a general regulatory review required under state law.

DENR regulates more than 2,300 combined animal feeding operations in North Carolina, mostly swine farms located in the eastern part of the state. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture says that the state has about 8.4 million hogs and is home to about 800 million chickens.

It is not clear what the outcome of the current disputes between agriculture, EPA and USGS will be. EPA's budgets have been cut sharply in recent years, but strong anti-pollution efforts by private environmental groups and others have filled part of the gap, and have won significant decisions under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. An example is the Chesapeake Bay Compact's broad rules on most activities that affect resource quality, including agriculture, construction and others. The organization has reported modest success in those efforts.

Still, new urgent concerns about the environment continue to appear fairly frequently, like the problems in Ohio that shut down municipal water facilities along the Maumee River which some see as leading to future constraints on agriculture in the region and lawsuits in Iowa farm country on water quality and in several other locations.

So, observers say it is easy to drum up sentiment against big government and its regulations, but very hard to fight off the media-savvy public energized by real or imagined threats to health. The anti-EPA fight has a long and bitter history and that is a battle that is likely to intensify long before it winds down, Washington Insider believes.

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