A taxing solution

April 12, 2005

UNCLE SAM should be ashamed of himself.

The citizens of Maryland, hoping to speed cleanup of the quickly deteriorating Chesapeake Bay, agreed last year through their representatives in Annapolis to pay a special fee for the purpose: a monthly surcharge on water and sewer bills known informally as the "flush tax."

Yet the initiative is undermined because federal agencies, which operate some of the biggest polluters in the bay watershed, are balking at paying their share.

President Bush should take the advice of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and order the Navy, NASA and other deadbeat agencies to pay up before they deal what the Eastern Shore congressman called a "highly detrimental blow to the cooperative spirit of the user-fee initiative."

After all, three military bases in Maryland have spilled a combined 20 million gallons of raw sewage into the bay tributaries over the past decade, according to The Sun's Tom Pelton.

It's not as though the feds aren't a big part of the problem; they also have to be a part of the solution.

The Pentagon launched the resistance movement shortly after the surcharge took effect in January, contending federal agencies are exempt from local taxes. That was a humorous entry in the political "tax" vs. "fee" debate, but a lame excuse. Regardless of how courts might define the new levy, the point is to make polluters pay for cleaning up their mess. You pollute, you pay.

If anything, military installations should pay more than most because they've been dumping toxic chemicals as well as sewage into bay waters for decades, and have only recently become more environmentally sensitive. Military bases usually have their own utility plants, but they tend to be antiquated and in need of upgrading.

So far, there is no uniform federal policy on the flush charge. For example, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda is paying the surcharge on its water and sewer bills to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, while the Goddard Space Flight Center is contesting it.

President Bush can easily resolve this matter, and should do so on principle. The flush tax is needed because Maryland's congressional delegation was unable to secure enough in federal grant money to upgrade 66 sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed so they meet the highest feasible water-quality standards.

By acting on their own, Marylanders have shown the sort of initiative and self-reliance the president says he admires. They deserve better than to be stiffed by some federal bureaucrats looking to improve their bottom line at the bay's expense.

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