Feds Propose Limited Immunity for Water Polluters

Agriculture is the largest contributor to water pollution in the U.S., dumping millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous into the nation’s waterways each year.

But as the problem worsens and government scrambles to find a solution, a program offering regulatory exemptions to farmers who voluntarily take cleanup steps is getting terrible reviews.

A high-ranking EPA administrator circulated an internal memo to the agency’s 10 division chiefs with a startling assessment: over the past 50 years, levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the nation’s water supply had “escalated dramatically” and could become “one of the costliest and most challenging environmental problems we face.”

Excess nitrogen and phosphorous in water can kill fish, damage ecosystems, and cause infant illnesses, and in the past 10 years, violations of nitrate pollution in drinking water have doubled.

The EPA has long been at a disadvantage in combating agricultural pollution. In 1977, Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Water Act that exempted many forms of agricultural pollution, making it difficult for the federal government to regulate the industry.

By 2011, the severity of the pollution problem warranted new innovations. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled on an approach called “agricultural certainty,” giving farmers incentives to voluntarily make their properties more environmentally friendly by promising them as many as 10 years of immunity from further regulatory requirements.