Bay restoration stalling, experts say

Environmentalists fault eroded federal support, effort by watershed states

March 12, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Twenty years after state and federal officials pledged to revive the troubled Chesapeake Bay, federal support for the nationally acclaimed restoration effort is eroding, environmentalists and bay managers say.

The bay restoration has also lost momentum in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the principal states of the Chesapeake watershed. Pollution, scientists say, must be reduced twice as much by 2010 as it was during the past two decades to meet restoration goals.

The states' voluntary involvement makes strong oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency a necessity, advocates say.

"But in the past two years, I feel EPA has become more a facilitator, playing defense when we need great leadership," says J. Charles Fox, who recently resigned as Maryland's natural resources secretary to work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"If things don't get moving a lot faster than they are now, the bay will be worse in 10 years instead of better," says William Matuszeski, who headed the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program for 10 years until retiring in 2001.

Matuszeski's comment was directed at the Bay Program's failure in October to meet a deadline for cuts in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

But the pullback of federal support for the bay appears much broader. In the past year or so, critics say, the Bush administration and Congress have threatened the restoration in a number of ways. They have:

Proposed giving the auto and electric utility industries more time to reduce air pollution from vehicles and power plants, which ultimately falls on the bay.

Weakened Clinton administration proposals to regulate pollution from farm manure.

Signaled that they will soften guidelines on which the state will base new water-quality standards.

Declined to regulate carbon dioxide, which is linked to a sea level rise that threatens bay wetlands.

Cut proposed spending for sewage treatment.

James Connaughton, a Baltimore native who heads President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, says the administration wants to rely less on traditional federal regulation and more on market- and incentive-based pollution reduction.

"We're looking at a broader array of tools to get programs that work, that [polluters] will adopt rather than litigate," he says. "We think we have a winning combination that will dramatically transform places like Chesapeake Bay."

Connaughton noted that federal spending for agricultural conservation around the bay is increasing and that the Bush administration cracked down on air pollution from large diesel trucks.

Even so, bay advocates such as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening say they're discouraged by the federal retreat.

"A stronger federal role is essential to restoring the bay," Glendening said recently.

Nowhere is the precarious nature of the Chesapeake restoration clearer than on the Patuxent River, which meanders 110 miles through the heart of Maryland to the bay. Costly sewage treatment upgrades have brought back 208 acres of underwater grasses - critical habitat for fish and waterfowl.

But farther downstream, the river remains murky and devoid of the grasses that once covered an additional 1,700 acres.

"Fish, crabs, ducks - the whole river was loaded, and when we lost our grasses in the 1970s, we lost it all," says Hezekiah Elliott, 76, an old-time waterman who lives on Broomes Island in Calvert County.

While parts of a few tributaries such as the Patuxent are starting to see improvements, up to half of the bay's waters remain inhospitable to fish in summertime - robbed of life-giving oxygen by pollution.

Fallout from air pollution - largely regulated by the federal government - accounts for nearly a third of the 290 million tons of nitrogen entering the Chesapeake, growing algae, smothering underwater grasses and depleting oxygen.

Along with power plants, the biggest sources of airborne nitrogen are motor vehicles. Vehicles have regressed in fuel efficiency since 1988, as Americans buy more pickups and SUVs, which burn more fuel and emit up to 10 times more nitrogen per gallon than the cleanest automobiles.

Last year, under pressure from automakers and labor unions, the U.S. Senate rejected significant improvements in mileage standards. The bay watershed senators from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania voted 5-1 against mandating cleaner, higher-mileage vehicles.

Nitrogen reaching the bay from power plants has been reduced significantly in the past decade - progress made through the federal Clean Air Act. But the reductions were largely offset by increases from vehicles.

Changes under Bush

Although progress with power plants will continue, changes proposed by the Bush administration threaten to slow the pace of improvement, critics say.

The EPA has proposed easing long-standing rules requiring older, dirtier coal-fired plants - many of them affecting the bay - to add modern air-quality controls when they upgrade generating equipment.

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