Regional leaders launch bay restoration campaign

Officials hope to secure billions in federal aid

December 10, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. - Marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the governors of Maryland and Virginia kicked off yesterday a campaign to make bay restoration a top national priority in hopes of securing billions in federal aid.

"We are going to launch an effort to raise the Chesapeake Bay issue to one of national importance," Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said at a meeting on the George Mason University campus. He compared the idea to a federal-state partnership restoring the Florida Everglades.

Acknowledging that advocates for other polluted bodies of water around the country seek federal assistance, Warner pledged that Maryland and Virginia "will try to make the case that the Chesapeake Bay ought to be first in line."

"The reality is, under these fiscal restraints, we cannot meet our goals unless we take dramatic new action," said Warner, a Democrat, who is chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council. "The idea of setting ambitious goals and letting them pass us by has to become a thing of the past."

But the council - including the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Washington, D.C., mayor and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - refused to support a proposal to set immediate, strict limits on harmful nitrogen discharges from sewage treatment plants.

The council's decision, and its aim to rely on federal dollars without committing large state investments, disappointed environmental groups that have campaigned this fall for regulations requiring sewage plants to install the latest pollution-reduction technology.

Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation endorsed those tougher standards last week, and more than 50 bay advocates - surrounded by dozens of boats and canoes towed to George Mason - held a rally outside the meeting yesterday in support of tougher sewage discharge restrictions.

"I was sorry we didn't hear any specific plans or a timetable," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "What specifics I did hear, they seemed to say that they wanted to wait for federal dollars. ... My guess is you have a lot better chance of getting federal dollars if the states step up to the plate first with real commitments."

The most specific pledge regarding sewage treatment plants was Warner's announcement that his state will initiate a regulatory process to decide what limits can be set on nitrogen discharges. Maryland officials said they have begun that process.

Now that the states have rejected immediate action, Baker said his foundation will pursue the petition it filed last week, asking the EPA to impose strict sewage discharge limits. If the petition is rejected, Baker said, the foundation will pursue a lawsuit.

Scientists blame nutrients in the bay - largely from sewage treatment plants, agricultural runoff and air pollution - for causing algae blooms that deplete the oxygen in the water and create large areas unhealthy for marine life.

While officials at yesterday's meeting said they hoped their actions will reinvigorate the bay cleanup effort, many said they're frustrated by two decades in which they've failed to make much progress improving water quality and restoring the crab and oyster populations.

"I did not expect our challenge would be so monumental," said Virginia Del. Robert S. Bloxon, who represents the lawmakers of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on the council. "I naively believed that within a decade we would be able to accomplish many of our goals."

The most recent cost estimate for the bay cleanup is $19 billion, but only about $6 billion of funding sources have been identified.

"We need a large permanent federal funding source with a lot of dollars," said Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "Even in good times, the dollars would not be there. The federal government needs to play a more dominant role."

Warner agreed. "We're talking about launching a national campaign," he said. "The bay, I believe, ought to be next in line in terms of a federal-regional partnership following the Everglades."

Their proposal drew lukewarm support, but no financial commitments, from the new EPA administrator, Michael O. Leavitt. He said the EPA will continue to assist the bay cleanup and called multistate cooperation a "new model of productivity" for environmental progress in large areas such as the bay, the Grand Canyon and the Gulf of Mexico.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, questioned whether the Everglades was the best model for the bay. The Florida cleanup is being done mostly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he noted, while nutrient reduction in the bay calls for efforts from hundreds of sewage plants and thousands of farmers.

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