Va. is warned it may lose funds for bay cleanup

May 06, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Chiding Virginia for lagging in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, the federal government has threatened to withhold nearly $1.2 million in grants unless the state picks up the pace.

The threat came in a letter from William Matuszeski, the Environmental Protection Agency's coordinator for the restoration effort. The Sun obtained a copy yesterday.

Mr. Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Bay Program office in Annapolis, said Virginia trails Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia in preparing plans for reducing nutrient pollution in major tributaries.

Some environmentalists saw the EPA threat as a sign that Virginia's new governor, George Allen, may need prodding to fulfill the state's commitments to the bay program.

The April 7 letter went to Virginia's natural resources secretary, Rebecca Norton Dunlop, who said yesterday that the delay in submitting plans did not signal any lack of support for the cleanup.

"After 90 days in office, we haven't finished evaluating all the programs we are now in charge of," she said.

Mr. Matuszeski noted that tributary plans are crucial to the next phase of the 10-year-old restoration effort. The states pledged two years ago to move "upstream" into the rivers to clean up the sources of nutrients polluting the Chesapeake.

The bay's waters are degraded by nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage discharges, runoff from farms and suburban lawns, and in fallout from air pollution.

All the states missed a self-imposed deadline of August to complete their tributary plans. Since then, Pennsylvania and the District have finished, and Maryland's plans are due by this summer.

Public meetings are being held this month to review cleanup strategies for Maryland's bay tributaries.

"Progress in Virginia has been more limited," Mr. Matuszeski wrote. Nothing has been proposed and no public meetings have been scheduled.

His letter to Mrs. Dunlop called for "satisfactory progress" soon; BTC without it, Virginia may lose nearly $1.2 million in bay-related funds -- roughly one-fourth of all the money that EPA gives the state annually for planning and research.

The letter asked for a reply by last Sunday. Mr. Matuszeski said yesterday that he had not received any; he hopes to get one within a week.

Mr. Allen, a Republican, was elected governor last fall. During his campaign, he virtually ignored the bay cleanup and said in December that "concern for the environment should not come at the expense of people, their property and jobs."

He also wants to roll back "excessive" state regulations.

Mrs. Dunlop said yesterday that planners have been hard at work drafting tributary strategies.

"We certainly are fully committed to doing what we believe is best in improving the quality and conditions of the bay," she added.

But some supporters of the cleanup are worried that Virginia's tardiness might weaken the interstate cooperation that has been a hallmark of the restoration effort.

At a meeting this year to review the cleanup, "We made it clear to [Mrs. Dunlop] that Virginia is not moving very fast," said Cecily Majerus, bay coordinator for Maryland's Gov. William Donald Schaefer. She noted that the Allen administration had been in office only a couple months at the time.

"Hopefully, that [EPA] letter is going to be a wakeup call," said Frances H. Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an EPA-backed public education group. "This

is serious."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Virginia's slowness was "very worrisome." Moreover, he noted that Virginia officials recently returned $320,000 provided by the EPA for the restoration of oyster reefs.

Because construction would have prevented harvesting at the site, watermen opposed the plan and succeeded in overturning it, Mr. Baker said.

A spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates oyster harvesting, said the grant was returned because the reef had been mistakenly planned over a viable oyster bed. Watermen did not object to the federally funded experiment, only to its location, said Wilford Kale, the panel's spokesman. Efforts are being made to redesign the project and to regain the grant.

Virginia's major rivers -- the James, York and Rappahannock -- contribute less to the bay's pollution problems than do more northerly rivers, such as the Susquehanna. But slowness in planning by Virginia could hinder efforts to clean up the Potomac, which flows through all three bay states and the District, Mr. Matuszeski said.

Mrs. Dunlop said she would be responding to the EPA letter soon with "science-based" plans that "will satisfy EPA and will certainly be good for Chesapeake Bay and may even satisfy our critics."

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