The Clinton administration's top environmental official said yesterday that toxic outbreaks of a fish-killing microorganism in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries were "a clarion call" for stronger curbs on nutrient pollution.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner said the sooner progress is made toward nutrient reduction, the better the chances that Pfiesteria outbreaks will be reduced or prevented.
"We have known for a very long time when you increase nutrient levels in lakes and streams, that can bring a host of problems," said Browner, who joined four governors and other officials at a six-state regional summit in Annapolis. "We're seeing problems not just in Chesapeake Bay, but all across the country."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening called the mid-Atlantic summit after scientists linked Pfiesteria to illnesses among people exposed to Pocomoke River water in the last month. The governors of Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware attended in person, while the governors of Pennsylvania and North Carolina sent representatives.
Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware have all had possible Pfiesteria outbreaks of their own, while Pennsylvania and West Virginia are home to large river systems that feed into the bay.
The summit began shortly after Virginia Gov. George Allen disclosed yesterday morning that menhaden with Pfiesteria-type lesions had been found in a second river in his state, the Great Wicomico, which joins the bay just south of the Potomac.
But as he had earlier when fish with Pfiesteria symptoms were found in the Rappahannock River, Allen declined to close the river because there was no evidence that fish were actually being killed.
That stance contrasts with Maryland's, which has closed three rivers as a public health measure on the basis of finding fish with Pfiesteria-type lesions.
The centerpiece of the summit was the signing of a six-state agreement to pool information about Pfiesteria and to work together to prevent more outbreaks.
The agreement calls for any state that discovers a Pfiesteria outbreak to immediately notify the other five states. The states -- also pledge to cooperate in seeking a federal response to the problem.
Robert Perciasepe, assistant EPA administrator, said the agency already working to set federal limits on nutrients in water. But he warned that the effort will probably take another two years because the EPA plans to set different limits for different regions and types of water.
The agency also plans to tighten federal regulation of animal feeding operations, including chicken farms, Perciasepe said.
Meanwhile, Glendening said he would take a cautious approach in reopening the three closed rivers.He said state scientists are working on a set of rules to determine when it is safe to reopen a Pfiesteria-infected river.
"I'd hate to open it prematurely," he said, adding that the rules should be ready for his review by the middle of next week.
The governor also sought to clarify remarks he made after a news conference last week suggesting legislation may be needed to curb farm runoff.
At a news conference on the Government House lawn yesterday, he said that while he believes the problem with Pfiesteria stems from "activities on the land," he would not single out chicken farms on the Delmarva Peninsula.
"Whether it's urban runoff, our existing water and sewage treatment plants or agricultural runoff, we don't know," said Glendening. He said the blue-ribbon commission he has appointed, which is to begin meeting Monday, has been instructed to identify the cause of the fish lesions and to recommend solutions.
"There is no time for finger-pointing, for blaming one state or another or one part of the economy or another," he said. The state has a problem it needs to deal with, and the cause "may be urban, rural or chicken farms."
Glendening, clearly pleased to be playing host to his peers, declined to second-guess the Republican Allen's decision to leave rivers open in circumstances similar to those in which Maryland has ordered closings. He said the governors were dealing with different conditions and that different responses could be expected.
Allen, for his part, praised Glendening's leadership in calling the summit but said he had heard nothing there that would reverse his decision to leave the Rappahannock and Great Wicomico open for now.
But Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, the discoverer of Pfiesteria and herself a victim of exposure to its toxins, said the presence of Pfiesteria-infected fish was ample reason to close a river. She praised Glendening's decision to close the lower Pocomoke River, the Chicamacomico River and Kings Creek.
"I would err on the side of caution," said Burkholder, a North Carolina State University researcher who was in Annapolis for the summit.
In addition to Glendening and Allen, governors in attendance were Delaware Gov. Thomas Carper, a Democrat, and West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican. North Carolina's Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, sent two Cabinet secretaries because he was overseas on a trade mission. Pennsylvania's Gov. Thomas Ridge, a Republican, sent a deputy environment secretary.
For the governors and other officials, the summit was mostly an opportunity to learn about a subject few of them had studied in depth. "What we know is a lot less than what we don't know," Carper said.
But there was just as much showmanship as substance in the gathering.
Camera crews paraded through Government House during lunch get footage of four governors chowing down on Chesapeake Bay crab cakes -- the latest opportunity for Glendening to go to bat for the struggling Maryland seafood industry.
Pub Date: 9/20/97