`Pretty good' is not good enough

ON THE BAY

Environment: The first bay conference 30 years ago raised questions, which today bring only qualified answers.

November 12, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT IS A BIT SOBERING TO look at recent insults to the environment through the lens of the first Governor's Conference on the Chesapeake Bay, held at Wye Institute 30 years ago.

The governor was Spiro T. Agnew, who will be remembered more for other things than sponsoring this extraordinary gathering.

Back then, we were still acting as if no other governors need be involved, as if Pennsylvania and Virginia did not exist, as if the bay were not connected to a vast watershed.

It would be 1977 before a bistate conference on the bay was held with Virginia, and 1983 before the bay summit with Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Who could ever forget Mayor Marion Barry giving a stemwinder on saving the rockfish?

But for all the lack of geographic scope at the 1969 conference, it is striking to see the vision set forth by its steering committee: "We must decide where we want to go if we ever hope to get there and answer many questions, including:

"How big a ship do we wish to accommodate [apropos of dredging]? How many?

"How many people do we wish to house on the shores?

"How many acres of wetlands should we preserve?"

Three decades later, as the century closes, it seems we have yet to adequately deal with such questions, which really involve setting limits.

This is despite our modern commitment, at least in theory, not only to stem the tide of pollution, but also to restore the bay to the health it enjoyed during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Consider The Sun's Oct. 26 article on the latest mega-mall in Anne Arundel County, whose destruction of 1.4 acres of wetlands, and 3,000 feet of stream channels was called "pretty good" by an Army Corps of Engineers biologist.

The Arundel Mills mall's projected numbers -- 3,000 new jobs and $4.2 million a year in sales taxes -- easily outweighed any misgivings among state and federal regulators.

Never mind that nearly a thousand people who live and work in the area signed petitions opposing the mall.

Never mind also that the state's regional Transportation Steering Committee voted deliberately to use outdated traffic data so road projects, including one vital to the mall, would qualify for federal funding.

Using up-to-date traffic data would have made it clear the region was violating air quality laws, and therefore ineligible for the road money.

More jobs, more tax revenue; fewer wetlands buffering the bay from pollution from more roads and more runoff from more pavement; dirtier air.

You can't just dismiss new jobs and more revenues. But you can, in the spirit of that 1969 conference, ask some hard questions: How many jobs do we need to create, how much revenue do we need, at what cost to the environment? Where does it lead us to parcel out our natural heritage by bits and pieces each time we grow?

No one is seriously debating such things as whether Anne Arundel County's future must be tied perennially to such trade-offs. No one is asking how doing a "pretty good job" of losing wetlands (the mall originally proposed to destroy 15 acres) can lead to environmental restoration.

There were some good people and some good talks at that 1969 conference, such as the one given by the congressman from the Eastern Shore, Rogers C. B. Morton.

Originally a Kentuckian, Morton's initials didn't really stand for Chesapeake Bay, but they could have.

"Compromise, when it comes to the bay," he told the conference, "is the halfway house to surrender. The end point of our failure is simply pushed forward to another page on the calendar."

Morton closed by proposing an environmental commitment by governments at all levels "that has no loopholes, that has no back door "

I don't think he was talking about "pretty good" jobs of saving wetlands.

I don't think he was talking either, about dredging the bay for ships in a "fairly safe" manner, as Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said in a Nov. 7 Sun story.

Cardin, with Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, are the pro-environment votes Marylanders can usually depend on.

But none has wanted any part of the widespread opposition to another proposal to dump millions of cubic yards of dredged spoil in open waters of the bay off Kent Island.

The amount of harm this will do the bay is debatable, but the debate is really only about whether it will do a bit of harm or a lot of harm, harm for a little while or for a long while.

The proposal, opposed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is mostly about money. "Overboarding" spoil -- just dumping it in the water -- is the cheapest way to go.

If you believe everything state and federal backers of dumping say, it might be "fairly safe."

Does this sound like a commitment to bay restoration that has "no loopholes no back door?"

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