New rules for Ohio watersheds on hold, for now

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Seegers testimony
Tony Seegers, of Ohio Farm Bureau, testifying before the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.

(This is a developing story. Check back for updates.)

COLUMBUS — A legislative committee that reviews state rule proposals put a halt on a controversial rule package intended for eight northwestern Ohio watersheds, which Gov. John Kasich says should be declared watersheds in distress.

The Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which includes members of the House and Senate, voted eight to one in favor of sending the rule package back to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, for revision and re-filing.

Multiple issues

All of the witnesses who testified during a Dec. 10 hearing at the Statehouse found issues with the rules, and said they violated the state’s rule-making authority and would cause an undue, adverse impact to agriculture. Witnesses also questioned whether the rule change would make any scientific improvement, and whether it would hurt the progress already being made in the Grand Lake St. Marys region, which was declared in distress in January 2011.

The proposed rules would have required about 7,000 farms in the eight watersheds to comply with new farming rules, including nutrient management plans, and would have effectively classified commercial fertilizer as a form of ag pollution.

Although the distressed watershed ruling has been successful for Grand Lake, many who testified said there are too many differences between that watershed, and the eight under consideration. The Grand Lake watershed is about 50,000 acres, compared to 1.5 million in northwestern Ohio, and there are only about 140 farms in the Grand Lake area, compared to the 7,000 in the northwestern watersheds.

The cost factor would also be significantly different, and so would the need for people to write and enforce all of those nutrient management plans, and regulations.

Expensive rules

Tony Seegers, state policy director for Ohio Farm Bureau, said the ag department  estimated an expense of only $1.5 million, with the need for one additional staff person per county. Seegers said the actual cost would be much higher, and that 21 staff members from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service were needed for the Grand Lake project alone.

Farm Bureau has estimated a need for 2,100 NRCS staff members at a cost of at least $1.8 billion, to accomplish the same efforts the state undertook for Grand Lake.

Seegers said the nutrient management plans can cost farmers $8,000-$12,000 an acre, and that livestock and dairy farmers would also have to pay, as much as $8,000 a year over 10 years, for new investments in manure storage and handling.

“It’s absolutely non-sensible to believe the cost of doing this in 13 counties would only cost the state $1.5 million and one additional employee in each county,” Seegers said.

Revise and refile.

The motion to revise and refile was made by Rep. Mike Duffey, a Republican from Worthington. He argued the rules need more time, and said the current proposals would undermine the success of rules at Grand Lake, and that the rule proposals also lack a strong scientific backing.

“These rules were at CSI (Common Sense Initiative) for 16 days, which is the statutory minimum number of days that a review can be reviewed,” he said, adding that EPA rules have typically been given more than a year of review.

Duffey’s motion was supported by Senators Bob Peterson, Bob Hackett, Joe Uecker and Cecil Thomas; and Representatives Boggs, Manning and Andrew Brenner.

The motion was opposed by Rep. Dan Ramos, a Democrat from Lorain, who argued that the state should fulfill the governor’s wishes, since Kasich’s term doesn’t end until January.

“Our governor is our governor until he’s not,” Ramos said. “He’s the chief executive.”

Ramos argued it was the Legislature’s intent to include commercial fertilizer, when it included language such as ” soil sediment” and “attached substances.”

But Seegers, and several lawmakers on the panel, said it was never the Legislature’s intent to include commercial fertilizer, even though they were pushed by the Kasich administration to do so.

“The General Assembly has not yielded to administration’s past attempts to amend the definition, and the department can now not circumvent the Legislature to accomplish its goals,” Seegers said.

He said that since “soil sediment” and “attached substances” are not defined in Ohio Revised Code, it makes sense to use the dictionary definition of those terms, which does not include fertilizer.

Sen. Thomas, a Democrat from Cincinnati, said the problem was that the administration apparently acted alone, without including the various stakeholders.

“It appears in this particular situation, that that has occurred,” he said. “I would like to see, as most citizens, that we come up with what works for everybody,” Thomas said.

He commended the many groups currently working together to find answers, including those working with researchers and universities, as well as those from the state’s No. 1 economic driver — agriculture.

”All of the groups are really working strongly together,” said Sen. Bob Hackett, R-Springfield, referring to agriculture, environmental groups and universities.

Hackett said lawmakers should be committed to do something for Lake Erie by early spring, but he said to act now, with the current rule proposal, and a new governor about to take office, “really seems to be counterproductive.”

“It’s a high priority item,” he said. “Lake Erie is a tremendous asset, and I think all of the farmers realize that, but to pass these rules at this time, really seems to be counterproductive. We’re doing the right thing.”

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