Which candidates are best for bay?

ON THE BAY

October 31, 1992|By TOM HORTON

It's no surprise that Chesapeake Bay didn't figure in the presidential debates. But the election will make a difference.

Here are Bush and Clinton probabilities, with impacts of some close congressional races thrown in for good measure.

The core funding for the bay restoration effort has fared well under President Bush. Since 1983, annual federal spending has been $15 million to $20 million.

Mr. Bush's most recent budgetkicked in $40 million to improve Baltimore's Back River sewage plant, second biggest on the bay.

As for Environmental Protection Agency, the lead federal agency in Chesapeake restoration, the caliber of appointees to key jobs is

generally considered excellent.

But in some ways, President Bush has performed the environmental equivalent of his "no new taxes" flip-flop.

Clean air: A significant amount of bay pollution falls from the air -- including nitrogen oxides from cars and power plants. These are linked to losses of sea grass and oxygen in the estuary.

The Clean Air Act recently signed by the president, if vigorously implemented, would go a long way to reduce this pollution; but Dan Quayle's Council on Economic Competitiveness, together with the administration's Office of Management and Budget, have vigorously worked to cripple the act.

Mr. Clinton's running mate, Al Gore, is an environmental champion of long standing, the antithesis of Mr. Quayle. If a Clinton-Gore administration did nothing but abolish the competitiveness council, the air, and the bay, would benefit.

Wetlands: "No net loss of wetlands," Mr. Bush promised early on, but his administration's definitions of what is a wetland have become a mockery of that pledge, even within his own environmental agencies.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, which are one of the bay region's most critical and threatened habitats, would be "defined" out of existence under the Bush guidelines.

Wetlands protection, entangled as it is with private property rights and farmers' concerns, is complex. Mr. Clinton will have no magic solution -- but it won't be hard to do better than Mr. Bush.

Managing growth: Aesthetically, environmentally and financially, sprawl development poses one of the greatest and least-controlled threats to the bay.

Unlike air and water, land is not widely considered a public trust. Most is private; yet as surely as water runs downhill, activities on "your" land end up in "our water."

Sorting out where private property rights end and where public interests begin will be one of the major environmental issues of the next few decades. Mr. Bush has been too willing to exploit landowners' and farmers' legitimate worries in cheap bashing of "liberal environmentalists."

In addition, recent Republican Supreme Court appointees appear likely to favor broad private rights, even where the result may be to degrade the common environment.

Will a Clinton administration be better? I think so, although I don't look for quick fixes to something so complicated as private property rights and population issues.

But I like the fact that Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton see environmental protection as compatible with a healthy economy, not as some bitter medicine that we must grimace and take. I don't think they would turn environmental concerns into polarizing issues, as Mr. Bush does.

While the EPA under President Bush has not done badly in helping the bay, it has not provided strong leadership in regulating land use, which is critical to water quality.

Mr. Clinton ought to change this; but local control of land is a

powerful force in this country, and I wouldn't expect much to happen.

Nor is the EPA the only federal agency whose mission directly affects Chesapeake Bay. A major player, potentially, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with power to get involved in research on such things as oyster diseases, and to help manage the bay's fisheries.

Both Maryland and Virginia could use a boost with fisheries management. NOAA has not been given a large role on the bay, despite the urging of Maryland's congressional delegation. With a Democratic president, that should change.

Finally, a sword that could cut both ways is Mr. Clinton's promise to jump-start the economy by massive spending on infrastructure. Most observers expect the program to include money for sewage treatment.

Judiciously applied to existing plants, that might be fine; but in the bay watershed, there is already 40 percent more sewage capacity than there are people who need it. A spate of new sewage construction or expansion could exacerbate problems in managing growth.

As for congressional races in the bay region, a few are both close and afford choices affecting the Chesapeake.

In Maryland's 1st District, including the Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel County, environmentalists are lining up behind Republican Wayne Gilchrest, who has voted loyally with Mr. Bush on most issues.

Mr. Gilchrest has had the courage to break with the administration -- and with vocal and powerful interests in his district -- in championing strict wetlands protection and in opposing Mr. Quayle's Competitiveness Council.

The Democratic candidate, Rep. Tom McMillen, is by no means anti-environment; he and Mr. Gilchrest average about the same in the League of Conservation Voters ratings of Congress. But Mr. McMillen's statements on wetlands and property rights indicate he has never grasped -- as Mr. Gilchrest has -- the concept that land use is vitally connected to quality of life for us and all other creatures of the Chesapeake.

In the 6th District, stretching across Western Maryland, Democrat Thomas H. Hattery has consistently voted for environmental positions in his terms in the Maryland legislature. His opponent, Republican Roscoe Bartlett, has a different view; he appears to think of the environment as an impediment to progress.

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