Setting the standard

March 16, 2005

THE BEST environmental laws strike a balance. We won't ban the internal combustion engine tomorrow, because the economic consequences would be disastrous. But we don't give up on air pollution, either. Instead, we set standards for automobile exhaust. You can still have your car, but you pay a little more to make sure people can breathe, too.

With that in mind, we are left to wonder about the Ehrlich administration's latest efforts in water quality regulation and the potential ramifications for the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland Department of the Environment wants to create a new classification for waterways. It's called "limited use," and that's a nice way of saying "a lower standard."

Under the Clean Water Act's regulatory requirements, Maryland could designate an area -- the Patapsco River, for instance -- as a place that will likely never be clean enough for fishing and swimming (the existing standard). This could have considerable impact on businesses that are permitted to discharge pollutants into that waterway; almost certainly, they'd face less-stringent restrictions in the future.

MDE officials say this is all about striking a balance between the environment and other human needs. They ask: What purpose does it serve to set unrealistic goals? They argue that it doesn't mean the state would ever walk away from any polluted waterway. Rather, it would simply present a more orderly, reality-based system of regulation. In other words, why crack down on a polluter if it has minimal, perhaps even nonexistent, benefits for the environment?

State officials have not indicated what waterways would receive this designation, but it's reasonable to assume that there won't be many. Certainly, MDE would have to get EPA approval to designate one, or two, or however many.

But here's the problem: No matter how you slice it, the Ehrlich administration is attempting to relax water quality standards. No other state in the region has sought this authority from the EPA. Maryland's environmental community is universally against it. It sees this application as sending a terrible message about the state's priorities. Certainly, MDE's case would be more convincing if it had evidence of a problem. But officials can offer no example where "unrealistic" goals have caused harm to the state or to businesses, or even squandered government resources. It's a theoretical answer to a theoretical problem.

Last year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. impressed Chesapeake Bay advocates with his flush tax and effort to upgrade sewage treatment plants. Much more needs to be done to protect the bay, the region's multibillion-dollar natural resource. Maryland must set the highest standards in the region, not the lowest. And while we can see the benefit to polluters (particularly if this authority were abused in future years), the corresponding environmental benefit is much less obvious. Until that case is made, this proposal looks more like a step backward than a fair balance.

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