Probe of bay program is sought

Md.'s U.S. senators join Va. colleague in letter on federally funded project

August 12, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Maryland's U.S. senators have joined Virginia Sen. John W. Warner in calling for an investigation of the government-funded Chesapeake Bay Program to see whether it has been "significantly overstating" how much it has been cleaning up the bay.

In a letter sent Friday to the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which audits federal programs, Warner, a Republican, and Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes wrote that they were concerned that the program might be inflating results by using computer estimates rather than water quality reports.

"Questions remain about whether the monitoring information currently reported by the Bay Program provides an accurate depiction of bay conditions and the amount of progress made toward restoration goals," the senators wrote.

A spokesman for GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, which is a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies, was created in 1983 to lead efforts to reduce pollution flowing into the bay - a 64,000-square-mile area encompassing parts of six states.

The Washington Post reported July 18 that the program's assertions of "saving the bay" were overstated. The Post said U.S. Geological Survey data contradict assertions - based on computer projections - that the bay program had helped to reduce the flow of major pollutants from rivers by nearly 40 percent since 1985.

Rebecca Hanmer, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program office, said yesterday in an e-mail, "The Chesapeake Bay Program welcomes the call of the Senators for a review of the program."

"The Bay Program is nationally-acclaimed for its current computer watershed model and for our extensive use of environmental indicators based on a robust monitoring network," Hanmer said. "But we also know that we must constantly evaluate our assessment methods and strive for further improvements."

Theresa Pierno, vice president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, praised the government's bay program for developing important science.

But she added that the problem with the program is that it is voluntary, lacking the teeth power to force local governments, farms and industry to stop polluting the bay.

"The reality is, we just are not meeting our goals and our standards," Pierno said. "We need more accountability and oversight."

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