We Can't Go Back to Jamestown Way


January 08, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Looking out for the environment is no longer in vogue in this era of deconstructing big government. The costs are considered too great, the regulatory burden too onerous and oppressive.

While criticisms of certain environmental regulations may have merit, returning to an era of ignoring the ecological consequences of human development would be disastrous. All one must do is look at the history of Jamestown, Va., the earliest English settlement that survived in the New World, to understand that disregarding the environment ultimately imperils our existence.

Standing on the banks of the James River on a clear late winter's afternoon, you can almost put yourself in the shoes of the small group of English settlers who established their colony some 400 years ago.

The setting sun casts shadows that obscure the houses, boats and piers and other evidence of contemporary society. Down river, stands of oaks, maples and beeches line the shore. Just before dusk, white-tailed deer emerge from the woods to browse on the river's edge.

The scene is idyllic and looks perfect for a settlement. But from an environmental perspective, the site couldn't have been worse.

The river water was unfit to drink even before the advent of industrial pollution. High tide brings saline water in from the Chesapeake Bay. Even at low tide, the salt content of the water is too great for drinking.

The settlers dug wells, but they never dug them deep enough nor in the proper location. As a result, their wastes contaminated much of their drinking water.

While a number of factors -- harsh winters, agricultural production oriented to grow tobacco rather than food, a lack of hunting and fishing skills and an Indian population that first welcomed the newcomers but then turned against them -- created harsh living conditions, the settlers' abuse of the environment created the disease that wiped out nearly three-quarters of their settlement. We can prevent some of the sanitation problems that plagued the Jamestown settlers four centuries ago, but it is still difficult to convince people of the wisdom of proper sanitation practices.

There are developers who would like to build in areas where large numbers of septic systems would result in widespread ground-water contamination. When objections are raised, they talk about onerous regulation of their industry. The high costs of constructing sewer systems, they warn, will have to be passed on to the buyers of their homes.

Some Carroll residents who have lived with septic systems for years often complain about arbitrary government rules and "stupid" government bureaucrats when they are required to hook up to sewer systems. They like to argue that since their systems are working fine, there is no reason for them to pay for the #F connection and the monthly sewer fee.

They forget that while their septic system may be working fine, their neighbors' may not be -- and may eventually contaminate their own well water.

With Carroll's population likely to continue growing, past practices are no longer appropriate, particularly if we are interested in preserving the environment for our children and grandchildren.

In the coming months, the proposed water resources management ordinance is likely to provoke a great deal of debate. The purpose is to ensure the purity and continued availability of Carroll's surface and ground water. Complaints about the cost of compliance, of unfair burdens on landowners and onerous inspections have already surfaced and are likely to increase once hearings are scheduled.

Carroll's proposed water resources management ordinance and manual are not perfect and should be subjected to a rigorous review. Legitimate issues must be discussed and debated, such as how large buffer areas should be and how to compensate people who cannot use a portion of their property because it is a possible future well site. But in our zeal to "get government off our backs," let's not discard this legislation as an unwarranted intrusion into private property ownership. With virtually no one in the community contracting diseases such as cholera and typhoid that are caused by poor sanitation, we tend to forget how devastating these diseases can be. We also take for granted that we will always be blessed with plentiful supplies of pure water. We tend to forget that even in so-called industrialized countries, in Europe or even the United States in Milwaukee two years ago, poor stewardship resulted in contamination of this precious resource.

In case we need reminding about the criticalness of pure water to our existence, all we have to do is read accounts about the "fevers" that decimated the Jamestown settlers. With the perspective of four centuries of knowledge, it is easy to look back and point out their obvious mistakes and lapses in judgment.

Are we willing to be as critical of ourselves, or will someone 400 years from now be pointing out how our poor stewardship of the environment resulted in similar catastrophes?

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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