Top Chesapeake Bay area officials meet for the first time in nearly 20 months tomorrow in Harrisburg, Pa., and they plan a show of unity intended to dispel fears that the bay cleanup effort has lost momentum amid bickering among the leaders.
The governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the mayor of Washington and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are scheduled to sign a four-point plan that calls for accelerated efforts to reduce the nutrients that are choking the bay.
The "strategic directions document," as it is called, also commits federal, state and local governments to preventing pollution, restoring the habitats of fish and wildlife and expanding public involvement in the bay restoration campaign.
The new plan is intended to refocus rather than replace the 1987 bay cleanup agreement, which had as its cornerstone a pledge to cut nutrient pollution 40 percent by the end of the decade.
"The meeting will show that a lot of the things that were planned in 1987 have been done," said Thomas McCully, spokesman for EPA's bay program office in Annapolis. "The strategic directions document is to pinpoint where we have to go from this point on."
The new agreement will be "reinvigorating or reemphasizing some things we have to do," said David Carroll, Chesapeake Bay program coordinator for Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Recent reviews have found that while progress has been made, particularly in curbing discharges from factories and sewage plants, too little is being done to halt polluted runoff from farms, cities and suburbs.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a gloomy assessment, declared that efforts so far have failed to "turn the tide" of the bay's decline. William Baker, the environmental group's president, faulted EPA chief William Reilly, in particular, for not pushing harder.
Reilly rejected the criticism, but he is slated to be replaced tomorrow as chairman of the Executive Council, which oversees the multistate cleanup effort. The council, which usually meets every year, has not done so in nearly 20 months. A gathering in Annapolis last January was canceled by threat of snow.
Reilly's successor as chairman of the council is to be Schaefer, who has indicated he plans to have a different style.
"I think he's interested in livening it up a tad," said Robert Perciasepe, Schaefer's environmental secretary. "I think he's going to talk about restoring a sense of urgency."
First, though, Schaefer may have to smooth over the ruffled feathers of Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Schaefer and Wilder traded barbs via the Washington Post this summer over the degree of Wilder's commitment to the bay cleanup.
Schaefer was quoted several weeks ago saying that the bay "has not been a priority" of Wilder's. Wilder in turn accused Schaefer last week of being off base, the Post reported, and Wilder said he planned to confront Schaefer tomorrow.
Schaefer aides downplayed the prospects of a feud.
"It's a different way of being committed -- different governors, different styles," said Carroll, Schaefer's bay coordinator. "We've all had terrible budget problems."
Environmentalists say they hope that the meeting can avoid finger-pointing and find some joint solutions to the bay's problems.
"If I were Gov. Schaefer and the other folks, the thing I would want to emphasize is unity," said Ann Powers, vice president of the bay foundation.
Though the political leaders have not met, administrative aides say they have been working together behind the scenes on the programs promised by the 1987 bay cleanup agreement.
What has slowed the apparent pace of progress, say some, is that the obvious and politically easiest steps already have been taken.
"Here in the beginning was a flurry of activities, and we had a rockfish moratorium and phosphate bans and on and on," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state body of legislators that also is a signer of the bay agreement.
"The issues being tackled now are monumentally more difficult," such as managing population growth and development, Swanson added. "I don't think it's a lack of leadership [so much] as the leaders are trying to figure out the next best step and how far their public wants to go."