Teens tell Congress how to save the bay

Environment: Students travel to Washington to testify about the pollution that is harming the Chesapeake.

May 23, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - A group of high school students from Cecil County has spent the past two months mucking through streams, hunting for insects and mining the Web for environmental facts.

On Tuesday, the six students from Bohemia Manor High School in Chesapeake City put on their best clothes, took a train to Washington and spoke to a congressional subcommittee about ways to save the Chesapeake Bay.

The students were participating in "Chesapeake Bay in Your Community: A Restoration Plan," a new project started by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Gilchrest asked students to find sources of pollution in their local watersheds and report their findings and solutions to Congress.

With students from three other Maryland high schools, the Bohemia Manor students presented the results of their research to the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, of which Gilchrest is chairman. The other participating schools were Pocomoke High School in Worcester County, and Broadneck and South River high schools in Anne Arundel County.

Students' findings

Sarah Lucas-Haji, 17, and Charlotte Sanford-Crane, 16, told the legislators how nitrogen-rich runoff from farms and aging septic systems in Cecil County passes through the soil and into the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and the Bohemia, Elk and Sassafras rivers on its way to the bay.

"There are so many houses, and some of them have illegal septic systems," said Sanford-Crane. The Bohemia Manor students' presentation included maps and photographs of Cecil County.

"We have to update sewage plants, and that is pretty [costly], but we have to do it," Lucas-Haji said. The students attributed some of the worst environmental damage to urban sprawl, boaters who litter and leak oil into the rivers, and ships that release nonnative species through ballast water.

They offered suggestions for cleaning the bay, including tax incentives for people who upgrade their sewer systems and increased taxes on boating, fishing and hunting licenses to pay for environmental education.

`People want to help'

Gilchrest, a former high school teacher, praised the students for their defense of the bay and said he plans to make the program a yearly event.

"I think people want to help clean up the bay, but they don't know how," Gilchrest told the students. "You are going to go a long way toward showing them how."

He also asked the students to protect the environment, not just study the problem. When a student said there should be more pump houses at public docks where boaters can empty their toilets, Gilchrest asked whether she would work on it.

"Well, it would be a great summer job," she said.

Lengthy preparation

Cheryl Lee, a Bohemia Manor science teacher and adviser for the project, said the students came to school 30 minutes early and stayed an hour after class to do research during the two months before the presentation.

They also traveled to streams to catch crawfish and search for bugs that live only in clean water. And they contacted their local representatives to find out the lawmakers' environmental concerns.

Lee, who has lived most of her life in suburban New York, said the students' best preparation was living in rural Cecil County, where they have firsthand knowledge of the crabs, bay grasses and bald eagles in and around the bay.

`More in touch'

Peter Carrion, a 16-year-old Bohemia Manor student who lives on a farm in Earleville, said his family does its best to minimize environmental damage while ensuring high yields of wheat, corn and soybeans. "I'm more in touch with it, I guess," he said.

After the students testified, they ate submarine sandwiches and talked about the experience. Cecil County has serious environmental problems that people don't see if they are not looking, they said. "Cosmetically it looks fine," said Brandon Husfelt, 17, of Elkton. "But underneath there are problems."

Much of the pollution is caused by carelessness such as littering and oil leaks from lawnmowers and farm machinery, Husfelt said.

Testifying did not make any of them consider a career in politics, but the students said the experience was "pretty cool."

"I'm surprised they let kids in here," said Julia Stone, 17, of Elkton. "It was cool that they took our word for everything."

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