Military urged to pay state `flush tax'

Lawmakers say pollution from bases obliges U.S. to help fund bay cleanup

April 12, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Three Maryland congressmen called on the military yesterday to end its opposition to paying the state's "flush tax" to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

"Not only should they contribute to the flush fee, but they should contribute in a big way to bay restoration," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from the Eastern Shore.

He was responding to an article in The Sun that documented 48 major spills totaling almost 20 million gallons of sewage into Chesapeake Bay tributaries over the past decade from the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

"The article was an eye-opener. I didn't realize they had so many spills," Gilchrest said. He called for a public hearing to be held in Annapolis, at which directors of military bases in Maryland could explain to the congressional delegation and state legislators the source of their pollution and what they're doing to stop the spills.

In January, Navy lawyers told the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that military bases in Maryland would not pay the so-called "flush tax," created by the state last year to collect $65 million annually to upgrade older sewage treatment plants that are polluting the bay.

The military maintains that federal agencies are exempt from state and local taxes. But the Ehrlich administration argues that the monthly surcharge on water bills is a fee, not a tax. Homeowners pay $2.50 per month to a Bay Restoration Fund to help finance improvements to sewage systems statewide, while businesses, state agencies and other large entities pay more.

"We continue to work with the military to demonstrate why we believe they should pay the fee," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, Glenn Flood, said the services would have no problem meeting with congressional representatives. "We welcome meeting with the congressmen," said Flood. "We are having productive talks now with the state of Maryland over this issue. But beyond that, I can't make any comment."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's office said yesterday that he will ask military representatives to meet with the congressional delegation May 19 to explain their position. "He is very concerned about this," said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Democrat. "He feels that the military has a role to play in this whole cleanup since they are one of the polluters."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said the military's refusal to pay the fee is an example of the Bush administration's "shortchanging" Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs.

President Bush's proposed budget for next year includes more than $40 million in cuts to Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, including the loss of $32 million for sewage system upgrades for Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

"There is a big gap between what the federal government should be paying for bay restoration and what they are paying," Van Hollen said.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski did not take a position on the flush tax, but she wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, asking the military to explain its plans for improving its sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed.

"I know Maryland's military bases take environmental protection seriously," she wrote. "I am concerned that needed upgrades to waste treatment facilities have reportedly been delayed by plans for privatization."

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