New resources sought to fund cleanup of bay

June 17, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Needing a transfusion of money to continue the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, the state has created a panel to help find additional funding, possibly from the private sector.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was to announce formation of the 22-member group headed by Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann today. It includes local and state officials, bankers, business people, academics and a farmer.

Coming amid unofficial projections that Maryland's bay effort will need an extra $60 million to $100 million a year, the panel's appointment appears aimed at overcoming -- or bypassing -- political resistance to requests for increased government spending.

"Because the public has been saying, 'What's it going to cost?' and 'How are you going to pay for it?' we're going to offer them some ways to pay for it," explained Cecily Majeras, the governor's Chesapeake Bay program coordinator.

The panel, slated to hold its first meeting Monday, will be asked to identify new ways of paying for all or part of the cleanup. Two possibilities: setting up service districts to levy fees for pollution control; and "privatizing" previously public activities such as sewage treatment.

Meanwhile, state and local officials are completing plans for restoring the bay's troubled waters by cleaning up the 10 major river systems that feed into the Chesapeake.

The plans, to be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for review by the end of the month, call for upgrading 50 sewage treatment plants to reduce their discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus. Also planned is enlisting most of the state's farmers in largely voluntary programs to control polluted runoff from their fields.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, EPA and the District of Columbia pledged seven years ago to reduce nutrient pollution of the bay 40 percent by the year 2000. Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, fertilizer and air pollution are fouling the bay's waters, choking off underwater grasses and making deeper waters hostile to fish and crabs.

Phosphate detergent bans and sewage treatment improvements made so far have curtailed phosphorus significantly, but relatively little progress has been made with nitrogen, which is tougher to control because it gets into ground water and the atmosphere.

The tributary cleanup plans being prepared by Maryland and the other states are intended to continue the progress made since the first bay cleanup agreement was signed in 1983. That progress -- most notably a resurgence in underwater bay grasses -- came as the states and federal government spent roughly $1.5 billion on restoration, with Maryland accounting for nearly two-thirds.

But hard economic times in the early 1990s forced states to cut budgets, and Maryland has pared its bay-related spending from about $160 million in fiscal 1991 to about $100 million this year.

State officials say that additional money -- though they don't know how much -- is needed to move the bay cleanup upstream into the estuary's tributaries. "We are not looking for a price tag," said Ms. Majeras. "Restoring a resource is not something you can put a price tag on. It's not like going out and buying a car."

But rough cost projections prepared by James George, a Johns Hopkins graduate student working for the Maryland Department the Environment, foresee the need to boost annual spending by $60 million, and possibly by as much as $100 million.

Those estimates include the yearly costs of financing capital projects like sewage plant upgrades, Mr. George said, plus continuing expenses such as annual subsidies for farmers to control runoff by planting "cover" crops in winter.

Officials discount Mr. George's cost estimates, insisting that they ignore the potential for saving money through innovative techniques.

"We probably are going to have to increase [spending]," Ms. Majeras said. "How much is the logical next question. But it's not simple, and it's going to keep changing."

Carlton Haywood, an official with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, said, "All of these numbers are so soft they're hard to defend." Mr. Haywood's own admittedly mushy projections for reducing nutrient pollution in the Potomac alone exceed $200 million a year.

"It's worth people knowing that this is going to be expensive," Mr. Haywood said.

But William Matuszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis, said, "You don't want to turn people off.

"We are not talking about substantial increases over the current level of effort," Mr. Matuszeski maintained. "And if we're smart about using technologies and efficiencies, we ought to be able to keep costs under control."

Others say that officials must acknowledge the need to increase spending or risk losing the momentum of the bay restoration.

"Responsibly, if we're going to clean the bay, we have to talk about costs, so the public can make decisions," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing legislators from the three bay states.

While overall cost estimates may seem daunting, Mr. George said, the financial burden is not so great when spread over all of Maryland's 5 million residents -- amounting to only about $50 per household per year.

pTC "I don't think this cleanup can come strictly from public dollars," Ms. Swanson said. "I think every individual at some level is going to have to bear some piece of the cost."

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