Bay cleanup is backed widely, poll finds

May 08, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Nine in 10 residents of the Chesapeake region support the bay cleanup, and six of 10 want a stronger effort, a federally funded poll shows.

The survey, released Thursday, also shows that the public tends to blame industry for the bay's woes, rather than farms and air pollution -- causes cited by many experts.

Two-thirds of the 2,004 people interviewed ranked chemicals as more harmful to the Chesapeake than nutrients, even though nutrient pollution has been the principal target of the cleanup.

Officials found the poll results both heartening and troubling, because halting nutrient pollution of tributaries is crucial to completing the bay restoration.

Moreover, this river campaign will be costly and require public support.

The $70,000 poll was sponsored by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a federally funded citizens group, and was conducted Oct. 6 through Jan. 27 by the University of Maryland Survey Research Center.

Residents of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia were questioned in telephone interviews.

The respondents were not asked to rank their concern for the bay against other worries such as crime, the economy and schools.

Nor were people asked if they would be willing to pay higher

taxes to continue the cleanup.

Three in 10 respondents cited industry as the most serious cause of bay pollution; the other choices such as sewage, farming, construction and oil spills scored much lower.

Nonetheless, officials involved in the cleanup say that farming is a major contributor of nutrients because of fertilizers and animal waste that run off into streams.

The poll results were announced in Maryland by an official of the Environmental Protection Agency, who said the state's gubernatorial hopefuls should take note of public concern about TC the health of the Chesapeake.

"Those candidates in this state who suggest that environmental rules are too strict are really missing the boat," said Peter H. Kostmayer, a former Pennsylvania congressman who is a regional administrator for the EPA.

He spoke in Annapolis the day after six of nine Maryland gubernatorial candidates -- including all three Republicans -- told a business forum that they would seek to roll back some environmental rules in the state.

Nutrients, chiefly nitrogen and phosphorus, degrade water quality by feeding massive algae growths. The algae block sunlight needed by underwater bay grasses, and, when the microscopic algae die and decay, they rob the deeper waters of oxygen needed by fish and shellfish.

"People still tend to think that the problems are caused by big, old industrial polluters," Mr. Kostmayer said.

"That is still to some extent a problem, but much less than it used to be."

He pointed out that during the past two decades, federal and state regulators have required cleanups of much of the harmful factory waste that was being piped into rivers and streams.

'It is increasingly us'

"It's not some big nameless, faceless company [polluting the bay]," Mr. Kostmayer said. "It is increasingly us -- those of us who drive too much, who use too many lawn chemicals."

Frances H. Flanigan, director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said the poll results show the need to convince residents of the bay region that what they do as individuals contributes to the restoration effort.

But William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the public is right to be concerned about chemical pollution.

"We think toxics are a primary culprit in the bay's decline and are a real part of the problem," he said. "I actually think the citizens . . . are out ahead of the government."

Mandatory controls

The bay foundation also is worried about nutrients; it has advocated mandatory controls on farm pollution, for example.

But Mr. Baker wants more scrutiny of chemicals.

He said the states and the EPA have fallen behind in evaluating the impact on the bay.

"Although we believe there has been [progress in reducing] industrial discharges of toxics, we believe that a lot more can be done," he said.

The bay foundation also wants to curb toxic pollution in urban and suburban storm water runoff and in air pollution, Mr. Baker said.

Though state and federal officials say there is evidence that the bay is getting cleaner, thanks largely to improvements in sewage treatment, nearly half the poll respondents said the Chesapeake is more polluted now than a decade ago.

"This agency has its work cut out," said the EPA's Mr. Kostmayer.

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