What’s going on with transparency?

This post originally appeared on the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition’s Blog on June 30, 2017:  http://www.marylandcleanagriculture.org/whats-going-on-with-transparency-63017/

What’s going on with transparency? (6/30/17)

Transparency and accountability have been priorities of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition since its inception. As government, industry and communities work together to reduce pollution, we must be able to see what is working – and what isn’t. Data and information is key to that effort.

In 2014, MCAC helped launch Marylanders for Open Government (MDOG), a network of diverse organizations connected by an interest in fair and open access to government-funded data and information. Member groups include Common Cause, ACLU, League of Women Voters and Waterkeepers Chesapeake.

MDOG was a leading driver of the ambitious, bipartisan 2015 update to Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA), which passed the General Assembly unanimously and was signed by Governor Hogan. That legislation created a PIA ombudsman position in the Maryland Attorney General’s office, established a PIA Compliance Board, clarified exemptions and improved required response times and protocols. The Attorney General’s office has a summary of the legislation here.

The bill also directed the Office of the Attorney General to report to the Governor and General Assembly on a number of issues relating to the implementation of the PIA, with an interim report due at the end of 2016 and a final report due at the end of 2017. Several issues related to agricultural transparency were highlighted in the interim report, released last December.

The report investigated state law exemptions outside the current PIA and specifically highlighted § 8-801.1 of the Agriculture Article, which governs the public availability of nutrient management plans. Nutrient management plans are essentially pollution control plans that identify the appropriate levels of manure and other nutrients—typically nitrogen and phosphorous— that maximize crop yields while minimizing the potential for runoff that can pollute local waterways.

These plans could be useful to determine how much nitrogen and phosphorus are being applied to the land and how that affects the local water quality. But, the plans are largely off limits.

Maryland code provides that the plans should be kept for three years “in a matter that protects the identity of the individual for whom the nutrient management plan was prepared.” Md. Code Ann., Agric. § 8-801.1(b)(2). Unfortunately, this provision has been the subject of seven years of litigation. The environmental community generally seeks a narrow interpretation where the name, address, and unique identification numbers are redacted. The Farm Bureau and other agriculture interests have argued for a broad interpretation where any information that could be used to identify a farm or farmer, such as the size of the farm or the types of crop it grows, should be redacted.

Should these plans be more accessible? A 2015 statewide poll showed that more than three-quarters of respondents supported eliminating the exemption that makes agriculture pollution control plans secret. Seventy-seven percent would support legislation to make agricultural pollution control plans available to the public, including 71 percent of respondents in rural counties.  Marylanders believe this information is important and should be made available to the public.

The interim report identifies the lack of clarity in the current code and suggests a solution is needed: “…we preliminarily find that § 8-801.1 of the Agriculture Article should be amended to specify what identifying information should be withheld when nutrient management plans are provided in response to a PIA request.”

MCAC will be submitting comments on the report recommending actions to address this “loophole” in the PIA. We encourage other organizations who are concerned with transparency and accountability in Maryland’s pollution control efforts to so the same. The Attorney General has a website dedicated to PIA reform, which you can find here. The site includes a link to the interim report and instructions on how to submit comments.

Maryland’s agriculture industry is afforded a level of secrecy that no other industry in our state enjoys, despite being heavily subsidized. Closing this loophole is critical to advancing transparency in the state, as well as to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. We’ll continue to watchdog and be a voice for expanding accountability in order to protect our waterways.

-Chris Trumbauer, Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition