Washington Insider-Wednesday

Tough Environmental Decision

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

Federal Highway Authorities Promote Rights-of-Way as Pollinator Habitats

The United States has thousands of acres of highway rights-of-way that the Federal Highway Administration is proposing be considered as possible habitats for pollinators. The agency has just posted the first installment in a series of reports to help educate state transportation agencies on actions they can take to promote the health of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats and butterflies.

The report acknowledges that enticing pollinators to roadsides can have its drawbacks, such as vehicle collisions, effects from vegetation management activities, exposure to invasive plants, drift from adjacent land and pollution from vehicles. Nevertheless, "roadsides are a conservation opportunity to increase pollinator habitat," the report says.

Among the many suggestions offered by the agency is that states and counties refrain from mowing highway rights-of-way on such a frequent basis. That would produce a two-fer for local governments by allowing them to participate with the feds in the pollinator program while also saving them money from undertaking fewer cuttings. The trick will be in managing the new habitats in a way that prevents them from becoming breeding grounds for insects and plants that rural residents find objectionable.

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U.S. Sugar Users Say TPP Should Increase Market Access for Sugar Imports

A coalition of trade, consumer and retail organizations is calling for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement to significantly expand U.S. imports of sugar. In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, coalition members urge Froman to resist calls to maintain trade protections for sugar producers and processors. The letter claims that easing tight restrictions on U.S. sugar imports would help the economy as a whole.

The letter from the Coalition for Sugar Reform says tight U.S. sugar supplies are expected for the next several years unless TPP countries with the ability to supply the U.S. market are given meaningful market access.

Sugar clearly is of interest to a number of the Pacific Rim nations with which the United States is negotiating the TTP. Just how far U.S. negotiators are prepared to go to expand permitted sugar imports is not known. However, refusing to open the U.S. market for sugar while demanding that other nations open their markets to increased imports of U.S. farm goods may prove a troublesome negotiating strategy.

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Washington Insider: Tough Environmental Decision

The cleanup plan established in 2010 by the Environmental Protection Agency to constrain nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay was upheld this week by a federal appeals court. The decision affirmed a district court decision issued in 2013.

The plan is controversial because it used a tough, relatively new pollution measurement tool to define total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. It also includes an enforcement tool to cut pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. States in the Compact include Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

The process requires states to develop plans to stay within the defined limits, with progress measured incrementally. Failure to make sufficient progress or set adequate plans could result in penalties from the EPA.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural plaintiffs have long opposed this process, arguing that it usurps state authority — and that sufficient cleanup progress is being made within current plans. The EPA and its backers in this case, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, argued that EPA's authority to establish and potentially enforce TMDLs was necessary because past cleanup efforts have not been successful.

This is not a new fight. In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania agreed with the EPA's plans and concluding that the Farm Bureau had been unable to demonstrate the TMDLs were based on flawed science or insufficient public participation and that there was no evidence the agency had intruded on the states' rights. This week's U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision affirmed that decision.

In its opinion, the court described water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay as a vast and complex problem, the solution to which will affect different industries and regions differently and "require a sacrifice by many." But it deferred to the expertise and authority of the EPA and the states to address that problem.

"Congress made a judgment in the Clean Water Act that the states and the EPA could, working together, best allocate the benefits and burdens of lowering pollution," the court wrote. And, it said, restoring the bay's health is "a goal our elected representatives have repeatedly endorsed."

The Farm Bureau told the press that it likely will not decide on next steps until later this week or next week. "We are still examining the opinion and seeing what, if anything, to do in response," spokesman William Rodger said.

The decision is unlikely to be popular with many in Congress, where support for overturning of the lower court decision as well as opposition to the current finding is strong. In addition, support for attempts to modify TMDL-based cleanup plans remain robust, including proposed appropriations bill amendments that would strip the EPA of its ability to intervene in the event of inadequate pollution reduction plans or progress.

At the very least, the Chesapeake Bay cleanup has been extremely controversial and likely will continue to be so. Political efforts to "rein in EPA" can be expected to continue, although the Chesapeake Bay Compact appears to have strong support as well. The Clean Water Act itself has been successfully defended repeatedly in recent court battles, fights that can be expected to intensify for the foreseeable future, especially as new health and environmental quality threats continue to emerge, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)