Environmentalists seek tougher rules on runoff Activists mark anniversary of 1972 Clean Water Act

October 17, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Environmentalists marked the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act yesterday by calling for stricter federal regulation of polluted runoff, especially from farms, to help combat the fish-killing microorganisms that closed three Chesapeake Bay tributaries this summer.

At a Federal Hill news conference overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor, spokesmen for three environmental groups said outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida show that cleanup has been slow in Maryland and the rest of the country since Congress enacted the landmark water pollution law Oct. 18, 1972.

"We've come a long way," said Daniel Pontious, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, "but the recent outbreaks of Pfiesteria show us we still have a long way to go."

"Our rivers no longer catch fire," Pontious said, alluding to the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which spurred Congress to act. "But runoff and other sources of pollution are still causing problems."

The Clean Water Act has led to cleanup of some of the most obvious water pollution, chiefly through sewage treatment plant upgrades and industrial discharge controls.

But the law has done relatively little to reduce the almost invisible polluted runoff from farm fields and city streets, said the activists, who included representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Clean Water Action.

Nutrient pollution, particularly runoff from Eastern Shore farm fields fertilized with poultry manure, is suspected in the Pfiesteria outbreaks this summer.

Though the nutrient link has not been proved, the organism has been blamed for killing fish and harming humans in three lower Shore tributaries, two of which remain closed to fishing and swimming.

"Agriculture has gotten off virtually scot-free," contended Thomas V. Grasso, Maryland director of the bay foundation. "We think it's high time, with the outbreaks of Pfiesteria, that the agriculture industry be required to play a role in the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay."

The groups released a report by the Clean Water Network assessing pollution problems nationwide. It listed agricultural runoff, sewer overflows, septic system leaks and boat discharges as major problems for Maryland's coastal waters.

The report also noted that Maryland, with 241 pollution-related beach closings last year, ranked second only to California.

But activists pointed out that Maryland is one of the few coastal states to do any monitoring of bathing beaches.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Chesapeake director of Clean Water Action, estimated that Maryland needs to spend $1.6 billion over the next 20 years to adequately clean its waters. She also said that the state's enforcement of controls on runoff from construction sites has slowed because of budget cuts.

Grasso said his Annapolis-based environmental group has threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for not requiring Maryland to move more quickly to clean its most polluted streams. He also called for stronger federal laws so that industries seeking to avoid costs of compliance won't move to other states.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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