Tighter pollution controls sought

12 bay fisheries groups want cleaner wastewater

Maryland-Virginia unity

November 19, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Recreational and commercial fishermen and crabbers from both sides of the Potomac River jointly called for deeper cuts in nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants yesterday, an unusual display of unity for groups that frequently squabble over use of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I think that after this summer, it's hard for anyone who uses the water not to agree that something needs to be done about the pollution," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It's about time we agreed on this."

The letter -- signed by 12 organizations -- calls on the leaders of the Chesapeake Executive Council to impose stricter limits on sewage treatment plants, requiring them to install up-to-date technologies to reduce nutrients in their discharges.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which also signed the letter, warned yesterday that if the council doesn't act, it will consider a lawsuit to compel the states to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act.

The council comprises the Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania governors, the mayor of Washington, and the heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The six leaders, who will meet next month to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Program and decide on future restoration measures, have declined to comment specifically on the bay foundation's call for tighter sewage discharge standards.

The coalition of commercial and recreational watermen was organized by the nonprofit bay foundation, which is waging a campaign this fall to persuade federal and state regulators to cut the nitrogen and phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Those nutrients cause algae blooms in the summer and deplete the bay's oxygen, creating areas that are unhealthy for marine life.

"I think this is a historic day," said foundation President William C. Baker after representatives from the 12 Maryland and Virginia groups signed the letter.

Baker said the foundation believes that commercial and recreational groups -- which often squabble over such bay issues as size restrictions and catch limits -- offer a strong voice to persuade lawmakers and regulators to reduce nutrient discharges from sewage treatment plants, even if it means higher charges for homeowners.

Sewage treatment plants contribute 20 percent of nutrient pollution to the bay -- compared to 40 percent coming from agriculture. But the foundation and the watermen are focusing on them because the technology, while expensive, is available to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus.

"If they won't make the right decision on sewage treatment plants, then we're doomed," Baker said. "If they don't, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will look for other strategies ... including possibly a lawsuit."

The representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing and watermen groups complained that 2003 has generally been a terrible season for most fish, crabs and oysters. Mostly, they blame nutrient pollution, which has created zones of low dissolved oxygen and harmed submerged grasses that are crucial habitat areas.

"There aren't many people who can make much of a living on the water right now," said Dorchester County waterman Roy Meredith, representing the Chesapeake, Atlantic & Coastal Bays Watermen's Coalition.

Douglas F. Jenkins Sr. of the Twin Rivers Watermen's Group in Virginia said there are few oysters to be caught this fall, and watermen in his area had "one lousy year of trying to harvest crabs this year."

"You can't point the finger like last year at over-harvesting. It's the water," Jenkins said.

Despite yesterday's agreement, neither the commercial nor the recreational groups were willing to predict that their fights over fisheries management won't crop up again.

"We can easily join together on something like this, because it's about protecting the bay," said Sherman Baynard of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. "But there's always going to be disagreements over allocations in the fisheries. That won't go away."

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