Bay cleanup effort has yet to confront big problem of little polluters

January 09, 1991|By Phillip Davis

Though large-scale programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay have garnered much attention, two reports issued this week warn that the battle is far from won on the important, but sometimes overlooked, scale of individuals such as farmers, backyard gardeners and boaters.

Pleasure boaters who dump their wastes overboard help pollute the bay's small tributaries. Farmers who store animal manure on the ground contribute to the pollution of subsurface water that eventually drains into the bay. Fertilizers from back yards can wash off the soil and damage water quality. Cars also pollute the bay, because nitrogen-laden smog settles into the water.

Unless people change these and other practices, say the two reports, the long-sought goal of reducing pollution dumped into the bay by 40 percent over the next 30 years will not be accomplished.

The reports were presented to the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Executive Council, which is made up of politicians and administrators from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania,the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Any decision on implementing the recommendations will be left to the individual governments.

"We've done the easy stuff. Now the hard part is ahead of us," said Fran Flanigan, the executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. By "easy," she meant regulating pollution from factories and sewage treatment plants, enacting air pollution controls for cars and banning phosphate detergents.

Ms. Flanigan headed a panel created by the EPA to study the large amounts of pollution coming from myriad small sources.

She said that while the panel recognized "the progress being made, we are not convinced that non-point-source control programs . . . are sufficient to ensure meeting the year 2000 goal."

Efforts to control pollution from scattered sources have been hampered by a lack of accurate information and by overly optimistic assessments of how effective voluntary control programs would be, she said.

The panel found, for example, low participation by bay-area farmers in major federal agricultural programs designed to promote conservation. Some practices meant to slow pollution did a better job of conserving soil than in keeping fertilizers and animal wastes from seeping into the bay, the report states.

"We were unable to discover data showing perceptible water quality improvements resulting from increased conservation efforts," the report concluded.

Organic wastes, such as farm fertilizers, damage the bay because they start a process that robs the bay's waters of life-sustaining oxygen.

The report recommended that many voluntary conservation practices be made mandatory and that governments target for special attention geographic areas that are the most intense polluters. Also needed, the report said, is a new philosophy toward controlling fertilizers, animal wastes and other pollutants that goes beyond traditional conservation practices.

The study said one such pollutant source that requires a new approach is the bay's 200,000 recreational boaters. A companion report that will be submitted to the commission says the boaters are a "potential threat to water quality of the bay's creeks and harbors."

Though a relatively minor part of the bay's pollution mix, when boats congregate in one place and dump human waste overboard -- such as in the small tributaries leading to private marinas -- they can suddenly soil relatively clean streams.

The commission will recommend that Maryland and other states give incentives to marinas to install waste pump-out stations.

The panel has asked the Coast Guard and boat manufacturers to agree by next year on a standard fitting so that all new boats will be able to connect easily with any pumping-out station on the bay.

By this July, the panel said, Maryland and the other states should establish "No Discharge Zones" in sensitive areas of the bay.

Recreational boater David Levitan said boaters would grudgingly approve of the proposed regulations.

"Boaters account for less than 1 percent of the pollution in the bay," said Mr. Levitan, a member of the panel. "But we are heavy users of the bay, and we want it as good and nice as we can get it."

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