Leadership faulted for slowed cleanup of Chesapeake Bay

July 14, 1991|By Liz Bowie

The regional effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay appears to be stalled by a leadership caught up in internal bickering, distracted by economic woes and, some say, nearsighted in making plans for the future.

"We are becalmed right now. The wind is out of the sails," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, expressing the sentiments of a wide range of bay experts.

For nearly a decade, three states and the federal government have worked to bring the nation's largest estuary back to life after drops in fish populations and bay wildlife signaled the ecosystem was in distress.

But for the first time, some leaders and bay analysts are saying publicly and privately they are concerned that some of the major issues, such as controlling rampant development, are being addressed too slowly.

The bottom line, they say, is that the present course of the restoration won't bring back the shad, the oysters or the bay grasses.

"I think the result of this pause in moving forward is going to be in five to 10 years as the benefits of existing programs start to be overshadowed by the increase in population," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Some of the officials leading the charge -- the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission -- have not been as willing to fight the bay's most difficult political battles as leaders of the past.

Not only have the leaders not met for 19 months, they are now taking pot shots at one another.

"We couldn't get the governor of Virginia, or the mayor of Washington, who understandably had other things on her mind because she had just taken office, or the governor of Pennsylvania to agree to come [to a meeting]," one EPA official said.

A meeting has now been scheduled for Aug. 6, but no agenda has been made available to the public.

The office of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia said last week the event was on his calendar.

Aides to Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon of Washington said she has not decided whether to attend.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has publicly criticized Mr. Wilder for not giving the bay the attention it deserves.

In an interview several weeks ago with the Washington Post, Mr. Schaefer said, "It has not been a priority of his."

Mr. Wilder's aides countered that their boss defended Chesapeake Bay programs against budget cuts this year.

The failure to hold an annual meeting is significant, because 1991 was the year designated to review the restoration goals and redirect the cleanup if necessary.

Some of the high-level bureaucrats who manage operations of the bay program defend the effort. Levels of phosphorus, one of the bay's major pollutants, have dropped by 35 percent. Striped bass are more plentiful, as are underwater grasses -- the key to improving water quality. The region's largest sewage plants and industries are nearly all in compliance with pollution requirements.

"A good many things that were getting worse for so many years are no longer getting worse," said EPA Administrator William K. Reilly. "I think there is a much better sense of strategy and a better sense now of the remaining very hard decisions."

The achievements have piled up year after year: a landmark, multi-state agreement in 1983, a Maryland law to control growth along the bay's shorelines or "critical areas" in 1984, the first state phosphate ban in 1985, a second major agreement among the states in 1987, a new focus on toxic pollution in 1988, a regional report calling for growth controls in 1989.

But since then the pace has slowed.

The leadership seemed to reach its zenith in Norfolk in August 1987 when the executive council was in the midst of rewriting a blueprint for the cleanup. Environmentalists feared that the newly elected Governor Schaefer, not known as a green leader, might not be as resolute on the bay and that the others would not force the issues.

But the "do-it-now" Mr. Schaefer, the professorial Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia, and Lee Thomas, then the gently-push-behind-the-scenes EPA administrator, surprised everyone. They went beyond the recommendations of their staff and set an ambitious goal of reducing nutrient pollutants by 40 percent by the end of the century.

Mr. Baliles and Mr. Schaefer appeared before the press as old buddies, joking about taking fishing trips together.

There is no such camaraderie apparent now.

"We are not the big happy family we were in 1987," said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Mr. Schaefer. "Clearly the governor doesn't see the same level of cooperation out of Virginia that he had in the previous administration."

Mr. Schaefer, who environmentalists now view as the most committed and visionary of the bay leaders, would like to be remembered when he leaves office in three years as the governor who got the wheels of the bay cleanup in motion.

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