3 governors, D.C. mayor sign bay pact Wetlands proposal sparks disagreement

August 07, 1991|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Staff Correspondent

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- They came to end their bickering and present a unified front in the fight to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. But a new controversy over how far to go in protecting a piece of that bay -- the wetlands -- kept their differences alive.

The governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and William K. Reilly, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a four-part agreement yesterday that includes a promise to try a new approach to preventing pollution.

Gov. Lawrence Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania expressed concern at the meeting that the Bush administration's rewriting of the definition of a wetland will reduce protection on thousands of acres around the bay.

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, on the other hand, sided with Mr. Reilly, saying the new definition seemed a good compromise between the environmentalists, who are opposed to any change, and the Eastern Shore landowners, who believe that the federal government is trying to reduce the value of their land.

"He [Mr. Reilly] is trying to do the right thing in non-tidal wetlands," Mr. Schaefer said, praising Mr. Reilly's efforts to work with Maryland officials and allow the state its own regulatory program.

Last week, Mr. Reilly and Vice President Dan Quayle agreed to a new definition of a wetland, one that could open up millions of acres nationwide to development. The proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days, field-tested and opened to public comment, has been criticized by environmentalists.

Six environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, held a news conference before the meeting yesterday to attack the administration for the proposal.

They passed out buttons with Mr. Bush's picture on them and the phrase, "Read My Lips, No Net Loss," referring to the president's promise to protect all wetlands from destruction.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials said they believe that between 500,000 and 1 million acres of wetlands in the three bay states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia will be opened to development if the Bush administration proposal takes effect.

Despite their differences over how to define a wetland, the governors found much common ground in the meeting at the governor's mansion on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

All three governors and the EPA chief agreed that if they don't control the sprawling development in the region, they will not be able to clean up the bay. Governor Schaefer said he will reintroduce a bill in next year's Maryland General Assembly to manage growth despite the legislature's displeasure with the proposal last year.

The leaders also pledged to start an accelerated program of reducing nutrients, considered the primary bay pollutants, and to set specific targets for restoring fish and shellfish populations.

The commitments were not new proposals but refinements of goals that had been set in 1987. The group also promised to take a new philosophy toward attacking pollution. They agreed to try to "turn it off at the tap" rather than lower the levels of pollution that get to the bay.

For instance, farmers can reduce the amount of fertilizer that they put on farms rather than trying to control how much runs off the land and into the bay.

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