One request stands out among dozens made by Maryland lawmakers seeking millions in federal dollars for projects benefiting the state.
That’s because the project isn’t actually in Maryland.
In an unusual approach to a long-standing problem, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told The Baltimore Sun this week that he wants to direct money to Pennsylvania farmers to help them curb damaging runoff that flows from the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay.
Cardin’s $2.2 million request to the Senate Appropriations Committee follows years of frustration by environmentalists that Pennsylvania isn’t doing enough to lessen the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the bay. Last year, Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation separately sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court, alleging it isn’t adequately enforcing cleanup targets for Pennsylvania and New York through the U.S. Clean Water Act.
With the suits still pending, Cardin is trying something different — a cooperative approach using the appropriations process to seek money for a project in a state other than his own.
“I can’t think of another example where I’ve done that. It’s kind of unique,” said Cardin, who has been in Congress for more than 30 years.
“Pennsylvania has clearly been the weak link in this. In recent years, it has not been as strong as it needs to be, in particular with the farmers, as it relates to the Susquehanna River.”
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Cardin said he didn’t act unilaterally. He consulted the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other bay advocates, and found an ally in Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
“Sen. Casey has long worked to provide resources for farmers so they can implement conservation practices on their operations,” said Natalie C. Adams, Casey’s press secretary.
The appropriations committee is to make Cardin’s request public Friday. The panel is inviting senators to submit funding requests for what used to be known as “earmarks” and are now called “congressionally directed spending.”
In 2011, the Republican leadership in Congress announced it was placing a moratorium on earmarks, which had become associated with waste and abuse. Congressional Democrats revived the funding tool this year, but require the requests to be made public and ask sponsors to certify the projects have community value.
Maryland’s U.S. House members have submitted dozens of requests that are being vetted by the House Appropriations Committee.
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Under Cardin’s request, the Pennsylvania funding would come through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Agriculture Department. The money would be used for projects including the creation of buffers — for example, through trees and other vegetation — to hold soil in place so it is not washed away.
If the committee approves the request, the funding would likely end up in a large spending package to be voted on later this year.
“We are delighted to see Sen. Cardin taking a look at the watershed holistically,” said Denise Stranko, federal executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The foundation is monitoring a 2025 deadline for a federal plan called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint to reduce pollution in the bay.
“We’re honing in on that date and how we’re going to get there. Reduction from agriculture practices is the top thing,” Stranko said.
Aides to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a written statement that he is working with his state’s legislature on approving new resources and “is making progress in reducing pollution in the streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.” In May, Wolf joined with Maryland and other states in the region in a plea to U.S. House and Senate leaders for additional bay restoration funding.
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Bay advocates say the goal is not only to improve its health but to boost the region’s resiliency to climate change. Strategies such as rotating grazing patterns can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by helping keep soil healthy.
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a membership and advocacy organization, said it hadn’t yet seen Cardin’s earmark request. But the bureau said farmers would welcome additional public money for projects to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“Farmers really don’t have the financial capability on their own to implement all of the needed conservation measures on their farms,” the bureau said in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun. “The bottom line is that we believe additional investments are needed at the state and federal level to help pay for on-farm best management practices.”