40% of waterways show pollution impact, EPA says

April 21, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Correspondent

BLADENSBURG -- Against the backdrop of an abandoned Maryland marina silted over as the result of urban development, the chief federal environmental official said yesterday that 40 percent of the nation's rivers, lakes and streams are adversely affected by pollution.

Carol M. Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, cited the Anacostia River waterfront, just outside Washington in this historic Prince George's County community, as an example of what "silt from polluted runoff -- the No. 1 problem threatening America's waterways" -- can produce.

Ms. Browner, releasing her agency's latest assessment of the nation's waterways, used it to promote passage of the Clinton administration's safe drinking water bill and its clean water bill, both pending on Capitol Hill.

The EPA assessment of the nation's water quality is a compilation of reports submitted last year by the states.

In Maryland, the report showed, virtually all the Chesapeake Bay, but only 7 percent of the rivers and streams, suffer from pollution.

"This report," cautioned Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, "is not going to necessarily give you an accurate picture." Speaking of the Maryland waters that the EPA calls "impaired," he said, "This does not mean that they are not fishable or swimmable. It means that they may in some ways -- from time to time -- feel the effects of pollution."

Added Rod Coggin, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: "We are generally encouraged. . . . But, we still have a long way to go."

Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government have been working together to clean up the bay. Last year, officials were cheered by news that rockfish, or striped bass, had produced a record spring spawn.

The EPA report said sewage plant improvements and a ban on phosphate detergents had produced a 40 percent decline in phosphorus discharges into the bay between 1985 and 1991. As a result, phosphorus levels dropped 16 percent in the Chesapeake. But nitrogen, another harmful nutrient, has not declined, the agency said.

Ms. Browner spoke at a waterfront that once was the site of a bustling Colonial tobacco port.

Beset by silting, trash and other pollution, the Anacostia -- which runs from Maryland through Washington -- is the site of an ambitious restoration project, now in its early stages. Last fall, restoration of a 32-acre tidal marsh at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington was completed.

On Tuesday, American Rivers, a conservation organization, said the Anacostia is one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country because of accelerating development in its watershed and the prospect of construction of a four-lane highway along the river.

Yesterday, as Ms. Browner spoke, two fishermen worked the opposite shore, aquatic birds flew overhead and plucked small fish from the river and the aroma of river-bottom silt being dredged up for a construction project wafted across the site.

Ms. Browner was joined by Gov. William Donald Schaefer; Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat; and Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Ms. Browner said, "This marina is symbolic of two things: that America's waters are in trouble and that we have the power to solve the problem."

Senator Baucus' committee earlier this year reported out new versions of the clean water and the safe drinking water bills; a House committee is about to begin work on its version of the clean water legislation.

Senator Baucus said the original clean water act, adopted nearly a quarter-century ago, "addressed half the problem," pollution from factories and sewage plants.

"We now have to address the other half of the problem," he said -- runoff caused by urban and suburban development and runoff from farms, mining and foresting operations.

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