Bay should come first

March 26, 2004

IF THERE WAS any doubt in the General Assembly of the need for speedy action to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, surely it was dispelled at a recent Senate hearing by heartbreaking accounts of bay watermen trying to survive last summer's "dead zone."

Fish were floating belly-up most everywhere they looked; the few living creatures in the catch were poor quality and underfed. Maryland restaurants couldn't serve local seafood; they bought it elsewhere and called it "Chesapeake-style."

"By the time last fall came," recalled Bob Evans of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association, "I was in fear of my way of life because of pollution."

Mr. Evans' way of life is in varying ways integral and essential to the way of life of every Marylander. That's why the state Senate needs to swiftly follow the House in giving overwhelming approval to landmark legislation to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

As passed by the House, homeowners would pay a flat $2.50 monthly fee, while commercial and industrial customers would pay a surcharge tied to their water use. In order to include septic-tank users - who don't pay standard utility rates - the House proposed to levy a surcharge when companies that clean out septic tanks dispose of the waste at treatment plants.

The virtue of this structure is that it is directly tied to the level of stress imposed on the bay - a "polluter pays" approach.

But leaders of a Senate committee want to replace it with a surcharge added to the property tax, which would reduce the annual burden on homeowners from $30 to $15, but create huge disparities among commercial and industrial users, who would pay flat fees unrelated to water use.

Not surprisingly, large industrial clients of the lobbyists who crafted this proposal would fare splendidly. What's more, the Senate proposal also exempts government agencies, which might be OK for state and municipal users because they are, in effect, us. But the federal government, which has lots of polluting facilities in Maryland, should not be let off the hook.

There's plenty more to be done for the bay; this "flush tax" legislation attacks only about one-third of the nitrogen that feeds the dead zone - though the House bill also seeks to curb farmland runoff as well.

With little time left in the legislative session, senators should keep their focus on getting this critical bay restoration work started. Mr. Evans and the rest of the Chesapeake economy can't endure many more summers like the last one.

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