Maryland’s Public Information Act & Nutrient Management Plans

Photo by Tusik Only

“Confidential” business plans for farmers, or what we refer to as Nutrient Management Plans, go against the Maryland Public Information Act, preventing public access to necessary information to safeguard our rivers from nutrient pollution that exceeds permitted limits. Currently, citizens only have access to nutrient information about Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly refer to as “factory farms”. Confidentiality eliminates our ability to monitor which farms are following their plans, or track who is illegally polluting our rivers and streams. Working with Waterkeepers Chesapeake, we challenged the Maryland Departments of Agriculture’s (MDA) ability to do this in state circuit court. This resulted in seven years of litigation that failed to resolve the matter, despite having gone to the highest court in Maryland – the Maryland Court of Appeals, as that court disposed of the case on a jurisdictional question and it was determined not to be worth appealing in the same court again.

Following that decision, Waterkeepers Chesapeake decided to pursue legislative action to fix the problem and working with the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, developed a new coalition of partners focused on public access to information – Marylanders for Open Government. This group developed a comprehensive Public Information Act Reform Bill that not only addressed the problem in the Water Quality Control Act relating to nutrient management plan secrecy provisions, but also went much further to deal with a host of other issues. This reform bill passed, but unfortunately the provision relating to nutrient management plans was stripped from the bill, but we were able to insert a provision requiring that the Attorney General study exceptions to the PIA and provide reports and recommendations.

Status Update: In January 2017, the Attorney General’s office issued an interim report that agrees with our argument that the current regulations are too vague and that states “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.”