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Virginia Farmers Concerned Over EPA Rule

Michael Pope

Farmers across Virginia are concerned about a new proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that could have dramatic influence on how they run their operations. That’s if the Trump administration doesn’t scuttle it. 

Here on the east side of Short Hill Mountain in Loudoun County, it’s feeding time. Farmer John Flannery walks up to a paddock and summons a drove of pigs.

“These are very imaginative pigs. They are among the smartest animals in the world," Flannery says. "And their eyesight is terrible. But if I just make some noise with this corn here."

Running a modern farm isn’t always easy. One of the more difficult things to deal with is the chemicals. Some of them are for the animals. Some are for the land. While feeding the pigs, Flannery recalls a recent conversation he had with another farmer after he saw him dumping pesticides on his land.

“I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to say to my neighbor, ‘What are you doing?' So I said, ‘Aren’t you concerned about drinking that?’ Meaning the poison," Flannery says. "He said, ‘Well my well goes down fifteen feet.” And I said, ‘It’s not going to happen in the next fifteen seconds.’"

Flannery is one of the few farmers in Virginia who supports the EPA’s new proposed rule known as Waters of the United States.

Essentially it would extend the regulatory powers of the federal government to stop his neighbor from dumping pesticides into the groundwater if it eventually went into the Potomac River. That rule changes the definition of navigable bodies of water to include streams and ponds that feed into rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

“So if you have a pond right near, say, a river and you’re polluting into it, you’re dropping oil or something into it. Then you are affecting the navigable body of water next to it," says Flannery. 

Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith of Salem represents many farmers who oppose the new rule. He says he’s been hearing from his constituents in southwest Virginia about it since the EPA announced the rule last year.

“They are very very concerned about it because it’s hard enough to make a living in southwest Virginia as it is without having the EPA looking at every little puddle or every gully washer," says Griffith.

Perhaps the good news, Griffith says, is that the proposed rule could end up being an academic exercise in bureaucracy gone wrong — an aspirational goal the EPA could never accomplish even if they wanted to.

“Now they don’t have enough manpower because they can’t keep track of Flint, Michigan. Certainly they can’t keep track of every mud puddle," says Griffith.

But Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Alexandria says the rule is not as restrictive as its critics say.

“There are a lot of myths out there, and the myths scare people but the myths are not real," Beyer says. "If you read the regulations, the EPA has bent over backwards to make sure that the vast majority of American farmers are not affected in any negative way by the regulation."

For example, Beyer says:

“The story you always hear is that the a tractor could drive and leave a furrow, and the furrow would fill with water after a heavy rain and that then would be regulated by the Waters of Americas. Not true."

Back at the farm in Loudoun County, I ask one of Flannery’s horses — named Achillies — about it. Flannery laughs.

“You see his ears back? That’s a sign of displeasure for a horse. So maybe the horse resents the rule because it doesn’t understand it very much like some farmers who don’t appreciate that they should embrace a burden that makes them have a longer life in farming rather than a shorter life," says Flannery.

Flannery may not share the opinion of his neighbors with the Trump sings on their lawns. And he may be out of step with the Virginia Farm Bureau, which opposes the rule. But he firmly believes that the Waters of the U.S. rule is the right things to do. And he disagrees with those who would try to undermine it.

“So what they are fighting for is the right to pollute. In quantities that they don’t want to be limited. That’s not a right that we should be encouraging," says Flannery.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, the rule has been cast into doubt. During a press conference shortly after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan specifically mentioned the rule as a regulatory effort that has gone too far — one that a Republican White House and a Republican Congress would work to end.

His message to farmers: Relief is on the way.