Power Play at EPA Puts Crunch on Cranberry Farmers

By Sean Paige

Few organizations or individuals on the receiving end of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulatory wrath would argue that the agency is a tiger without teeth. Yet Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican in the Jeffordsonian mold who chairs the House Science Committee, thinks the EPA’s designation as an ‘agency’ – a mere ‘agency’ – should be elevated to a full-fledged “department,” with Cabinet-level status. This, Boehlert says, would give the EPA “a front-row seat at the White House.”

A similar measure, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is before the Senate. Prospects for success seem sunny, given the Bush administration’s endorsement of the idea. "The president thinks it should be a matter of law," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer recently said of the proposal.

But any increase in EPA’s power could come at the expense of the common citizen. Just ask 69-year-old Charlie Johnson, a Massachusetts cranberry farmer of modest means. The EPA has gone to war with him over alleged Clean Water Act violations. He knows the agency as a rogue and bully that needs curbing.

For five years the EPA has been on Johnson’s case, claiming the cranberry bogs on his farm – though man-made and dry except when irrigated – are federally protected wetlands with which Johnson illegally tampered. Even though it could drive Johnson to bankruptcy (he’s already spent $124,000 for attorneys and consultants) and mean the loss of an enterprise it took him and his family four decades to build, the feisty farmer is drawing a line in the sand and fighting back.

Federal wetland protections were instituted in the 1970s prohibiting cranberry growing on natural bogs. Many Massachusetts cranberry farmers began building their own bogs by peeling away several layers of soil to bring the plants closer to the water table below. But the EPA now claims that about 40 percent of man-made bogs dug in the state between 1977 and 1986 are every bit as protected as naturally occurring wetlands. A swarm of technicians have in recent months invaded Johnson’s farm, digging wells and poking holes to prove the point.

According to Johnson and his attorney, Gary Baise, the agency wants to make an example of the farmer in hopes that other cranberry growers in similar situations will quietly comply with the government’s absurd demands. And it couldn’t have picked a more opportune moment to strike: The cranberry market currently is glutted, prices have plummeted and farmers on the financial edge are hard-pressed to fight back. Some already have thrown in the towel.

"This is the history of the EPA, that they pick on the little guy because he can’t stand up to the power and they can run him into the ground," says Baise, who occupied a top spot at the agency at its founding but today battles in court against the EPA’s excesses and abuses of power. The EPA has "become a bastion of extreme environmentalism," he says, and is going after farmers because they use pesticides and fertilizers to protect and increase their yields. "This is a fight to the death because, if they win this, they will wipe out [Johnson’s] operation and force him to return the property to what they say is its original condition," according to Baise.

And if they wipe out Johnson, it could be cranberry sauce for many more farmers in southeastern Massachusetts.

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