Moving Forward on the Bay

December 23, 1991

Political leaders in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware now must face up to what officials in Maryland have known for quite some time: The "plume" of pollution in the environment is very long indeed and steps must be taken to clean up these pollution sources if further headway is to be made on returning the Chesapeake Bay to good health.

That is the import of the preliminary report released last week on the successes and failures of the Chesapeake Bay compact.

Difficult decisions lie ahead. Pennsylvania farmers for a long time resisted the arguments of Maryland and Virginia over nutrient loads that their fertilizers dumped into the Susquehanna River, but evidence has mounted that these pollutants put tremendous pressure on the bay. A key to solving this touchy problem could be the findings of researchers that Pennsylvania farmers could save money by using less fertilizer on their crops. Improving Pennsylvania's compliance with the bay compact will require careful negotiation.

Meanwhile, fertilizer pollutants pour into the bay from Delaware with greater effect than had been assumed. Ditto for New York and West Virginia. These states are unused to calls to take responsibility for cleaning the Chesapeake because they are so far removed from the estuary. But their effect on the bay's watershed is considerable: Farm runoff from these two states, plus other runoffs, flow into tributaries of the bay, thus making cleanup efforts far more arduous. These states need to be brought into the bay compact as signatories.

Finally, the damage to the bay from nitrogen pollutants from auto exhausts must not persist. Groups such as the Maryland Petroleum Council have taken strong exception to Maryland's decision to join with other Northeast states in implementing California's auto-pollution standards, but the worst-case scenario of costs and job losses they lay out ignores a stark fact: Nearly 30 percent of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake estuarine system comes from air pollution. And the biggest component of air pollution in this region comes from "non-point" sources, i.e. automobiles.

The Chesapeake states must either persuade their neighbor states to assist in the bay's cleanup or face the exorbitant costs of installing air-quality controls even more stringent than the disputed California plan. At the same time, the bay states have to install better sewerage, tighten regulation of farm runoffs, preserve wetlands and resurrect the bottom grasses and shellfish beds that once worked to keep bay waters clean. It is a tall order, but the plume of pollution menacing the bay's future cannot be ignored.

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