New crisis, new chance to learn Pocomoke: Earlier pollution crises -- on the Potomac in the 1960s and the Patuxent in the 1970s -- offer a guide to actions that can benefit the river and, ultimately, the whole bay.

On the Bay

September 05, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THERE MAY be no obvious solution to the unprecedented outbreak of the toxic microorganism, Pfiesteria, that has besieged one of the bay's prettiest rivers, the Pocomoke.

But if history is any guide, there are obvious actions worth taking immediately that could benefit the river and, ultimately, the whole bay.

The Pocomoke, whose scenic waters have killed thousands of fish and poisoned dozens of humans this summer, is the third Maryland river where a pollution crisis has dramatically focused public attention.

In the mid-1960s, there were huge fish kills in the Potomac around Washington and noxious mats of floating algae that fouled it for miles in the dry, hot summers of that period.

In response, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (the Environmental Protection Agency did not exist then) convened the Potomac Enforcement Conference in 1969.

"A severe threat to anyone who comes in contact with it," the conference said of the river.

Out of this, over the next decade or so, flowed research, money, official promises, lawsuits and, finally, state-of-the-art controls on phosphorus, a key pollutant entering the river from sewage-treatment plants.

By 1990, the phosphorus from Washington's giant Blue Plains treatment plant had been reduced from 8 million pounds a year to 63,000 pounds.

The result in the upper Potomac was a significant comeback by fish and waterfowl. Meanwhile, tougher standards limiting phosphorus from sewage plants were imposed around the whole bay.

Next was the lower, tidal portion of the Patuxent River, flowing through Southern Maryland. Its rich seafood resources had reached a low point by the late 1970s.

In 1979, a federal court found, in effect, that not even Potomac-style phosphorus controls on burgeoning upstream sewage from Central Maryland would be enough to reverse the decline in seafood resources.

In 1981, an environmental summit meeting convened by Gov. Harry Hughes' administration produced a radical and expensive commitment for the Patuxent.

Maryland would spend hundreds of millions to control nitrogen, a second key pollutant in sewage discharges.

Nitrogen had scarcely even been recognized by the EPA or Maryland as a concern until then, but its removal from sewage subsequently became a major commitment of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

And now, with all eyes focused on the Pocomoke and Pfiesteria piscicida, there is potential for another critical piece of the bay cleanup puzzle to finally get the attention it needs.

The critical piece is again "nutrients," phosphorus and nitrogen, but not from human sewage. Snow Hill and Pocomoke, the only population centers along the Pocomoke, are small factors in the pollution from this rural, 170,000-acre watershed.

The excessive nutrients here are coming predominantly from leakage into the river of commercial fertilizers and chicken manure spread to fertilize crops on about 600 farms in the Pocomoke drainage.

Officially, such agricultural pollution, is under control -- i.e., farmers are voluntarily, without much oversight or accountability, entering into nutrient-management agreements to spread no more fertilizer than the crops can use.

Such maximum control of runoff is very difficult to achieve, although there is little doubt that farmers are doing remarkably better than they were even a few years ago.

However, virtually no one knowledgeable about the bay's cleanup thinks the agricultural pollution situation is anywhere near under control.

The situation in the Pocomoke is very much a two-edged sword.

It presents a golden opportunity -- virtually a mandate -- for another great leap in restoring the bay's health, because Pfiesteria is not only a threat to human health, but it could sour perceptions about the quality of all bay seafood.

Scientifically, however, it is much more complicated than the Potomac and Patuxent cases, because excess nutrients are only one among several factors, such as rainstorms, salinity and water temperatures, that can trigger toxic outbreaks.

A useful guide for how to proceed is the "no regrets" strategy advocated by scientists and regulators in another arena, global warming.

There, the issue is whether to greatly reduce burning of fossil fuels to offset climate changes that might or might not be occurring, depending on how you interpret the still-emerging science.

An example of "no regrets" actions: making cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. That makes a dent in global warming but also achieves goals -- cleaner air and less dependence on foreign oil -- that we would want even if we questioned the warming theory.

Just so with the Pocomoke and the bay. No one can guarantee that reducing agriculture's pollution will banish Pfiesteria or say with any certainty that it will recur if we do nothing.

But nutrients do seem to be a factor, and one of the few we can control. And reducing them will clearly attack other big problems, from oxygen-poor water to losses of vital sea grasses.

Without pointing accusing fingers at farmers, the state should make the Pocomoke its new Potomac, its latest Patuxent.

It is the time and the place to focus, for the good of the whole bay, on the shortcomings of controls on agricultural pollution; to devise real solutions, with accountability; and to face the fact that cheap, abundant food that can be produced without polluting will require more public subsidy.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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