High-stakes cleanup

December 04, 2003

STATE AND FEDERAL leaders of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup compact are scheduled to convene for their annual meeting next week in an atmosphere of unusual urgency.

Despite two decades of effort and some solid progress, key indicators suggest the giant estuary is once again in decline -- the most obvious tip-off being the dead zone now covering nearly half of the bay's stem.

The cooperative cleanup campaign joined in 1983 by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems outmatched by development pressures and crippled by a shortage of funds.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his regional counterparts and EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt should strengthen the effort with regulatory backbone and develop a new financing scheme to help pay for it.

That's a tall order, and not one easily filled. Tightening permit requirements on sewage treatment plants, for example, could have the adverse effect of encouraging development in rural areas on septic systems, which would also be bad for the bay.

Imposing some kind of new fee to create a steady source of revenue for cleanup efforts is bound to meet objections from advocates for other public causes demanding a similar benefit.

But the stakes are huge; the bay, with its fisheries, boaters and appeal for tourists, is the major economic engine of the state as well as a central feature in the quality of life here.

And a voluntary framework of goals and timetables has made it too easy for all involved to postpone, delay and expect others to go first. Sewage plant managers blame farmers, farmers blame urban runoff, and city dwellers don't seem much focused on the problem. Meanwhile, pollutants washing into the bay from as far away as New York state are unregulated.

Upgrading treatment plants should be the easiest part of task: The technology is available, and Maryland officials are working with local officials to install it. But the job is estimated to cost $1 billion -- on top of the $2.8 billion required to repair aging sewer lines to prevent overflows.

Mr. Ehrlich has been lobbying for major federal help in paying the tab, but so far it hasn't been coming. State officials say that if they can't come up with a reliable revenue source for those upgrades soon, there's little hope Maryland can meet its pollution reduction goals for the bay by the deadline of 2010.

So it's time to be creative.

If all sewage customers help shoulder the burden, the cost of those plant upgrades would amount to $2.50 per month per household, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. There ought to be a way to get that done.

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