Activists claim EPA `writing off' Chester River, restoration efforts

Environmentalists say proposal hurts tributary

January 23, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - Eastern Shore environmental activists are warning that 400 pages of guidelines proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency would lower water-quality standards for the Chester River, ending cleanup efforts for a 25-mile stretch of the waterway and limiting the restoration of underwater grasses that are crucial for crabs and other sea life.

The Chester River Association, led by Eileen McLellan, mailed 1,500 letters to supporters last week criticizing the conclusions of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program and its data on the health of the river and its watershed.

At issue is the federal EPA's designation of the river's channel as a "dead zone" because of low levels of dissolved oxygen.

"We believe this river is under threat because the EPA is writing it off; they've decided that it's too far gone and would cost too much to fix," said McLellan. "The bay program is essentially giving up on parts of the Lower Chester, and that's just not acceptable."

Association members also say the EPA guidelines would mean that thousands of acres of underwater habitat would not receive help to restore grasses.

Agency scientists have been working for nearly three years to develop what they call a broad blueprint that divides the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries into zones based on the habitat needs of fish, crabs, shellfish, grasses and algae. They say the document was never meant to be the last word in defining the scope of pollution in the waterways.

The EPA has declined to extend the Sunday deadline for public comment on the guidelines, saying local groups will have ample time to help establish specific plans when the guidelines are handed over to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

At a news conference yesterday, McLellan faulted the EPA's data-gathering system, which is limited to two sites at Kent Narrows, nearly 25 miles from the river's headwaters north of Chestertown.

She urged association members to report their observations on the location and health of bay grasses and fish and other aquatic life found throughout the river, a tactic that was praised by Rich Batiuk, director of science for the EPA's bay program.

"The more the local folks can get into the process, the better for us," Batiuk said. "They might have jumped the gun, but they're doing the right thing. They have a good grass-roots organization. They know their river."

Kim Coble, assistant director at the Maryland office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also lauded the Chester River Association, which apparently is the only local group to have taken a close look at the EPA's guidelines.

"This is what our waterways need," said Coble, who would not provide details of the bay foundation's position on the proposed guidelines. "We have our own team from each state looking at the same proposal."

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