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Leading Bay activists take on Big Ag, developers, politicians and establishment environmental orgs, warning the Bay is dying while they’re talking

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MARC STEINER: Welcome back to The Real News. This is Marc Steiner. We continue our conversation about the state of the Chesapeake Bay with two of the three people that you heard in the last segment, who wrote the article for the Baltimore Sun, their op ed on the on the dire state of our bay and what to do about it. Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, had to go, because he is in the middle of a conference where he had to be lecturing to some young people who are about to become activists on their own. And we are still with Gerald Winegrad, former state senator, and Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper. And Gerald and Kathy, glad that you could stay around for this next segment.

So let’s talk just a little bit about the background to the power that stops what’s happening. And Kathy, may I start with you. You’ve spent a long time now, in these years I’ve known you, doing stories with you and interviewing you, at least over the last 15 years, fighting the chicken industry on the Eastern Shore, which is one of the major sources of pollution in the Bay. And so why is it so difficult to rein in the runoff? Why is it so difficult to create measures that–because right now, the voluntary–what we didn’t say at the beginning of this was most of these things that have been done to save the Bay have been voluntary. They haven’t been laws. They haven’t worked. So talk about what the opposition is, and what you think the solution is.

KATHY PHILLIPS: Well, the biggest problem is that the chicken industry is a major industry on the Eastern Shore. It is not the largest industry on the Eastern Shore. If you look at state documents, it is ranked fourth on the Eastern Shore as far as size and number of employees of various industries. But that being said, as Gerald mentioned earlier on the other segment, Salisbury University has been funded through chicken, parts of our hospitals have been funded through chicken. It does support a number of jobs.

But in any situation where an industry becomes so powerful that the elected officials are beholden to it, and even ordinary citizens are afraid to speak up about it, they might not be happy about what they’re seeing. They might not be happy about the fact that while the industry likes to say that they provide so many jobs on the Eastern Shore, they are the lowest paid jobs on the Eastern Shore, and they are in many cases jobs held by documented immigrants. And it’s the jobs most of the people on the Eastern Shore don’t want to have.

And so when you have that kind of a situation develop, I call it this culture of fear that we are slowly starting to chip away at now. But it has taken, you know, 10, 12 years and longer. But certainly my efforts and the efforts of this amazing community on the lower shore that has come together to finally speak up and speak out, they are not happy about the Chesapeake Bay. They are not happy that their rivers, the Pocomoke, the Wicomico, the Manokin, you know, in many areas you can’t swim in those rivers. You probably shouldn’t even be fishing from some of those rivers at certain times of the year; like for instance, in the spring just after manures have been applied to the fields, and then we get heavy storms. And you’re right, we need to do another segment about climate change. Because that is one of the biggest impacts to the Eastern Shore in the next 25, 50 years. Certainly is as far as agriculture is concerned.

But after these heavy rains it is not safe to to fish or swim in these rivers. And that’s wrong. And there are laws to protect every citizen’s right to clean water. The Clean Water Act. And there are laws based on the Clean Water Act that are in every single one of the Bay states. And these laws, they are not enforced across the books. Very often, what I see happens so often with development, heavy development, is that we have laws that are to protect the water by keeping vegetated buffers along the shorelines. And more often than not you are going to see someone step up with a high paid attorney and get an exemption, and be able to cut down those trees, cut down that vegetation. And now it’s a green fertilized lawn straight down to the waterway. And every time that happens we lose another bit of protection to the bay.

And so when they wonder why is it after all these years that we haven’t made any forward motion, our farm fields should have hedgerows all the way around them, and they don’t. And part of that, or a good part of that, is because the price of corn and soybeans can be so volatile and those farmers need to–they feel they need–to cultivate every square inch of that field right down to the creek, or the stream, or the ditch that is bordering their farm field, because it’s the only way they feel they can make money.

But you know, it’s the poultry industry, certainly on the Eastern Shore, that controls the price of corn and soybeans in many ways for the local farmer. And so we, the citizens of Maryland and these other Bay states, we through our taxes end up subsidizing to help these farmers so that they can exist and keep their farm. But. There has to be a way to do that where they are required to keep these buffers along the edges of their fields. That’s so important to keep sediment from getting in the water, to keep the phosphorus and nitrogen from getting into the water. And we just have to–we just need to at least enforce the laws that are on the books, and stop granting exemptions at the county level, granting exemptions at the state level. Or more importantly, when we’re trying to strengthen some of these regulations at the state and federal level, we need our politicians to stop finding every excuse they can find to kick the can down the road and not address the problem head on.

MARC STEINER: It seems to me that–Gerald, you go back in politics a long time in the state, for the 35 years that we’ve been talking about. You were in the state Senate 35 years ago. And so what is it … If we know the Bay is in terrible shape, and people see some on the screen behind us. And you talked earlier about the, what can happen to you physically if you go into the Bay, and the infections you can get. And people are seeing some of the photos you brought with us, so they can see just what kind of, what kind of attacks you can have on the human body from the pollution in the Bay. So what is it about the power of developers, the ridicule of the stormwater runoff, which is called a rain tax, that was taken away, the power of the chicken industry–and we have to realize that that chicken industry is also, you know, whether it’s the hog industry in North Carolina or the chicken industry here, this is–and the soybeans and corn being grown to feed these animals, and put it in some of the other things that we buy in the store–that is where the market is. You know, in some ways that’s where the farmers are stuck, in that world.

So the question becomes, so, what do we do? What are the political responses that change that dynamic and save the Bay for the future? For us, for our children, our grandchildren, great grandchildren. What comes next? Where do you start? Where’s the battle? How do you fight that?

GERALD WINEGARD: Well, we’ve outlined very specific details what needs to be done, and we did that through the senior Bay scientists and policy makers for the Bay a number of years ago. Fred Tutman was part of that. Kathy Phillips was part of that. Former governors Hughes and Glendening. The list goes on to the [best] scientists. We gave 25 points. We delivered them to Governor O’Malley. We delivered them the governors of all the Bay states. We gave them to the secretary. We met with high ranking officials in the Department of Interior, EPA, Department of Agriculture in Washington, with scientists. And Senator Joe Tydings he was a part of it, too. God bless Joe, he just recently died. He had the Bay fever and was really working with me for 10 years. But it falls on deaf ears because of those special interest groups and where these people are coming from.

So the dilemma is this. This is why we wrote this article, too. It’s to shake up the system, if people will listen to us. We appreciate you doing this show so the word gets out. But the two things that we’re saying are, number one, the special interest and the elected officials, all the way from the administrators under the president of the United States down to the governors, and down to the even the county councils, all of these elected officials, they control the executive agencies and enact the laws, enforce the laws in the legislatures. They do not have a united front in the environmental community that is putting forth the necessary programs, and laws, and legislation, funding regulations that needs to happen. That’s one thing. And two is there’s this Happy Jack talk that every time there’s something bad that happens with the Bay, about this report card and all these conditions, you blame it on the weather. There was a lot of rain. Or if it’s dry, rain, and the grass has come back to a level last seen 30-some years ago, but certainly not seen 50 years ago, we had a much higher level, they declare a–it’s jubilation. It’s like a jubilee. We’ve met this goal. Look at this. We had a 5 percent increase in grasses. When it’s way behind the goal they set in 1990 to be met in the year 2000. It’s like a joke, a bad joke about this. The 2010 goal was 185,000 acres of grasses. They hit [104,000]. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, environmental community scientists, the policy makers, what a great success [crosstalk].

MARC STEINER: Pop the champagne.

GERALD WINEGARD: Yeah. Secondly, the governor told me personally, when I talked to Governor Hogan briefly, I said, I got to talk to you about the Bay. He said, listen, it’s never been better. Look at what’s happened. You know, and I went back and said, what is he talking about? Well, instead of 62 percent of the Bay being impaired–that is, in violation of the Clean Water Act, where you can get diseases, it’s so bad–we’re now at only 58 percent. And we’re at 42 percent being, quote, meeting the basic minimum standards, and that was higher than it’s been since ’85, ’87. That is true. That is minimum. So that is true. But you can declare a success when 58 percent of the waters of the Bay still don’t meet basic Clean Water Act standards? And so I wrote the governor a letter, and I sent him all these details. I still haven’t heard back. It’s been almost three weeks.

So the point is is that the environmental community has to get its act together and foster the proper movements in agriculture control and manure to counter the incredible intensity of that economic special interest that influences the political machinery. And they’re not doing that. They’re buying into this success, because if you show success you can say to funders, hey, look, we could restore the Bay grasses. It’s working. The system’s working. Give us more money and we’ll really turn the corner. But it’s not accurate. It’s really not working in a macro sense. The Bay is dying from the death of a thousand cuts. And you don’t see dead bodies. You know, you don’t see people passing out. I see flesh eating diseases. But what’s even scarier than that, there are deliberate efforts–and this was confirmed by a Ph.D. toxicologist that speaks all over the world–to keep health departments and the public from knowing about these flesh eating diseases. I can attest to this.

And so the two things that have to happen is the environmental community has to get their act together and be a formidable force for change, and stop this lollygagging about agriculture. It’s going to solve the problem by just getting more money and take on ag, because–very importantly, for the people watching this–is that we are a blessed nation. We have conquered the ability to feed this nation. In fact, we’re exporting probably over 25 percent to 30-some percent of what we produce in this country now, to China, all over the world. We are one of the few nations in the history of civilization, and even left on earth, that is a net food exporter, that we can feed our people. We have to sell diet everything because we have too many calories to survive. And that comes with an incredible price. Agriculture was the main reason–tobacco, originally–that we cut our forests, filled our wetlands to grow more and more tobacco, and then grains for export. We cut our trees, we destroyed our wetlands. Still traces. There are almost no wetlands, nontidal, on the Eastern Shore, and farmland that haven’t been drained.

So the point is that the incredible productivity for our foodstuffs, including chickens, and pigs, and hogs, and grains, that comes at an incredible price. And we see it in the Gulf of Mexico with red tides, we see it here in the Chesapeake Bay with flesh eating disease and decline of oysters and crabs. So the point is that. The other alternative here is the most–the cheapest way to clean the Bay is in agriculture. If you have proper manure management you don’t put all this nitrogen down on fields, because soybeans and corn support chicken, and soybean and corns are extremely nitrogen intensive. In at least 50 percent of that nitrogen putdown goes off and runs off into the bay. It’s not used. The point is that we must address the agriculture, or there’s no hope in restoring the Bay through buffers, et al.

Two, we’ve got to go after stormwater and new development and retrofit our existing stormwater. It’s as simple as that. Instead, you look at the annual rally of the environmental community, and what are their top initiatives? Have nothing to do with agriculture. Very little to do with retrofit. They’re dealing with higher standards for alternative energy. That’s fine for–and electrical production. But this year one of the biggest initiatives is a ban on Styrofoam. Last year or the year before it was a ban on plastic bags. Has nothing to do with the Bay, barely. And it’s really, it’s an issue that should be dealt with. But it’s not what I would have in my priority list.

MARC STEINER: Kathy, you were going to say what, just before we conclude?

KATHY PHILLIPS: There are positive changes that can be made, but it’s going to take everyone from–everyone in all of these Bay States to make a commitment to change. There has to be change. It’s not going to be easy.

But for instance, on Delmarva we have a new generation of farmers coming up. And they they don’t want to grow corn and soybeans and raise chickens. They understand how hurt the soil is on the Eastern Shore. And you know, I speak of the Eastern Shore all the time. But this certainly applies to many areas within the Bay states where only corn and soybeans are grown, because the process needed to grow those crops kills the soil. And we have a new generation of farmers who want to be able to diversify what they’re growing. They want to go back to having farms that are sustainable, that are not polluting the waterways, that are not so dependent on heavy use of herbicides, pesticides, phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer. And we need to go back to a more diverse system of agriculture in many of our agricultural states. Beyond the Chesapeake watershed.

You talk about the red tides in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not a matter of if. It is going to happen here in the Chesapeake Bay. And we just need to be–we need to have elected officials, our industries–our industry leaders, our community leaders to all be unified in a real desire to make change, knuckle down and do what needs to be done to make change, and you know, let’s have a system of agriculture that is going to be healthier for our bay. It’s … but it’s going to require a commitment from everyone, and that is is the hardest thing.

MARC STEINER: So, Gerald–we only have, like, a minute here, so. Literally.

GERALD WINEGARD: No one has the right to pollute, whether you’re a farmer, whether you own a car wash, or whether you are Bethlehem Steel. But the key things, as our points are, one, we need action by the EPA to enforce the pollution diet and suing the states, or someone like CBF or a group has to step forward and sue over not meeting Clean Water Act standards. Two, we have to adopt tough nutrient management regulations in agriculture and enforce them. We leave it up to Department of Agriculture, it’s not working. And now they’re even trying to slip out of the reasonable ones of not putting manure, chicken manure, down on fields that are already phosphorus saturated. CBF’s representative, Chesapeake voted for it with the whole committee unanimously to recommend at least looking at another delay after these have been delayed till 2022.

The third thing is we need to go after and fund tighter discharge permits for it to reduce pollution from existing urban stormwater runoff, and we have to have a no net increase in pollution from new development. And finally, we need to protect our existing forest from development and assure that we have buffers, that Kathy mentioned, of at least 100 feet inviolable all around the Chesapeake and the tidal and nontidal waters. So that’s the critical zone. And finally, we need to stop the harvest of wild oysters and go to an aquaculture system, as 95 percent of the world oysters are harvested in aquaculture, and leave those filter feeders alone. They’re cleaning the waters of the Bay. And also adopt much better regulation of female crabs in the take of crabs overall. That’s the outline.

MARC STEINER: We’ve been talking here with Joe Winegrad, Kathy Phillips, and earlier Fred Tutman joined us. Our guests wrote an op ed in the Baltimore Sun, three of our leading environmental activists here in the state of Maryland. And what we’ve been talking about here today really has repercussions nationwide and worldwide in terms of how you fight for a cleaner environment and our future. And I want to thank the three of them for their work, and for joining us here on The Real News. It’s been great to have the three of you with us, and thanks to the two of you for staying. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for watching. Stay involved. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.