For the bay, a double standard

On The Bay

Lawmakers: Politicians say they want a clean, restored Chesapeake, but it's votes that count.

March 22, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT IS A curious, post-Sept. 11 patriotism that displays the American flag from gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups that guarantee our slavish dependence on foreign oil.

It is a tepid environmentalism that flaunts "Treasure the Bay" license plates on those same vehicles, which pour anywhere from 30 percent to 100 percent more pollution into the environment than the average automobile.

Make no mistake: One's mode of transport is among the single largest choices people make that affect the environment, and especially the Chesapeake Bay.

Consider one pollutant: nitrogen, the single largest source of the bay's decline, directly responsible for the estuary's loss of sea-grass habitat and of oxygen for fish and crabs.

Almost a third of the nitrogen entering the bay - 98 million pounds a year - comes from the fallout of polluted air on the water and on 64,000 square miles of bay watershed, where rains wash it into streams and rivers.

The air is a larger source of bay ills than sewers, than agriculture, than urban runoff. Bay scientists have not sorted out what portion of airborne nitrogen comes from vehicles, but it is big.

Nationally, a third of airborne nitrogen comes from vehicles, the main reason nitrogen in the air has risen in the past decade.

Power plants are still the largest source, nationally and for the bay region. But a lot of power-plant pollution falls in the far western and northern reaches of the bay's drainage, where its effects are moderated long before reaching tidewater.

Meanwhile, with Interstate 95 and U.S. 50 and U.S. 13 running like great rivers of exhaust fumes close to the bay for its whole length, a greater proportion of vehicle nitrogen assuredly reaches the Chesapeake.

I'll talk more in next week's column about cars and how you have significant choices for bay health, even if you feel you must drive a gas-guzzler.

Political leadership will be the topic for the rest of this week's sermon. The vote on vehicle fuel efficiency last week in the U.S. Senate was a classic example of why the bay is not responding better to attempts to restore it.

The Senate's refusal to require significantly higher mileage, and safer and cleaner vehicles by 2015 was a huge blow to human health and to the health of places such as the Chesapeake.

Maryland's Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was lambasted in The Sun and other newspapers for caving in to the auto lobby, but the real story is how typical her vote was.

Look at the "bay watershed" vote in the Senate, at the six senators representing Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the states with most of the bay's watershed, the states that have signed a commitment to restore the bay.

It was 5-to-1 for fouler air, 5-to-1 against a real bay cleanup. (Maryland's Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes was the lone pro-bay vote).

Mikulski noted the risk posed to 1,500 jobs at a General Motors plant in Baltimore - debatable, given the saber-rattling the automakers so often do against "unobtainable" new standards. (Remember catalytic converters, airbags, seatbelts?)

And I have lost count of the polls, national and local, that show the public would choose environmental protection over jobs if push comes to shove.

The leadership problem goes well beyond polluting vehicles and the Senate. The Maryland legislature this year seems certain to make deep cuts in environmental programs rather than delay the last year of a tax cut worth about 35 bucks a person.

Again, the polls usually show people would choose higher taxes over environmental degradation, if that is the choice (and that is the choice here).

But the leadership problem is more pervasive. Look at the voting scores for elected leaders around the watershed during the last decade, based on key environmental issues selected by the bipartisan League of Conservation Voters and other groups:

Virginia's House averaged 50 percent in support of environmental bills, and its Senate, 48 percent.

Pennsylvania: House, 50 percent; Senate, 35 percent (it averaged 45 percent, excluding a session where only one vote was scored and the Senate got zero).

Maryland: House, 55 percent; Senate, 60 percent.

Congress: House, 48 percent; Senate, 46 percent.

Governors aren't uniformly scored, but of the three bay states, only Maryland's Gov. Parris N. Glendening was strong on the environment.

Maybe the pols know us better than the polls.

Maybe the person in the flag-waving, oil-sucking, bay-treasuring, fish-killing SUV really is who we are, vs. what we represent to pollsters.

Maybe we will conclude that restoring the bay to health was a notion conceived by people who for all their wish to do the extraordinary, turned out to be just ordinary.

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