To save the bay, enforce the laws

September 20, 2005|By J. Charles Fox

Early European explorers launched many expeditions into the Atlantic, most of which were unsuccessful until they discovered the relative safety and reliability of the trade winds. Today's Chesapeake cleanup leaders need a more reliable course to save the bay, and it can be found in our nation's past success in controlling pollution.

Twenty-two years ago, the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program began as a voluntary effort to control pollution and restore living marine resources. Two decades later, the Chesapeake Bay Program has little to show for itself. Water quality monitoring data show scant improvement, while the bay's "dead zone" appears to be expanding. The dead zone is an area with little or no oxygen, and last month, it occupied more than 40 percent of the bay's volume. Crabs, rockfish and oysters cannot survive in those conditions.

The latest bay panel presented new cleanup recommendations last fall. It concluded that there were a number of workable solutions for the Chesapeake, costing a stunning $28 billion. The panel recommended a "down payment" of $15 billion, with $12 billion to come from the federal government.

Not surprisingly, local governments, major polluters and conservationists supported the plan. To bay-area interests, a federal bailout is akin to the proverbial "free lunch." This strategy, while politically expedient, is destined to fail because federal funds simply will not be forthcoming. Continuing to pursue it will only serve to delay the bay's return to health.

The federal government provides about $230 million a year to the Chesapeake Bay, a level comparable to that received by Florida's Everglades and the Great Lakes. Last month, Congress appropriated about $20 million less for the bay cleanup than the year before. With the nation at war, facing the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars to clean up after Hurricane Katrina, and the federal deficit at record-high levels, it is inconceivable that the Chesapeake will receive billions of new federal dollars.

For the next five to 10 years, we will be lucky to maintain current federal spending levels.

The panel's appeal for taxpayer funds is rooted in the flawed, voluntary design of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. This strategy ignores every single pollution control success in our nation's history.

The straightforward path to saving the bay can be summed in three words: enforce current law. It requires no new legislation and no significant public funding. It is based upon the principle of making the polluter pay, not the taxpayer.

To be successful, this strategy will require as-yet-unseen leadership from federal and state executive branch agencies.

Sensible environmental regulation is credited with tremendous success over the past 30 years. Today's cars produce substantially less pollution than cars in 1970; dozens of dangerous chemicals have been removed from the marketplace; drinking water is safer; smokestacks are cleaner; pesticides are less harmful; and rivers no longer catch fire.

While more progress is necessary in almost all cases, the beneficial results to the environment and public health have been dramatic. Hundreds of studies over the past three decades conclude that the benefits of environmental regulation far exceed the costs.

A similar recipe will work for the Chesapeake.

Fundamentally, the bay suffers from excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. There are only a handful of major sources of this pollution, including factory farms, power plants and new development projects. Each source is regulated in some form by federal and state governments. Those regulations, however, are not being adequately enforced.

The federal Clean Water Act, for example, requires that every pollution discharge be permitted and that each permit be sufficiently stringent to protect the health of the bay. The reality is that permits issued every day fail to meet this standard.

There is a role for taxpayer funding in the bay cleanup. Land preservation, for example, is driven largely by public financing. So, too, are land management plans to plant trees or control storm water pollution from older urbanized areas. In rare instances, federal and state governments also must be willing to help needy communities improve wastewater treatment.

Chesapeake skippers confronting strong headwinds, rough seas or contrary currents know that the safest and fastest way to a destination can be an entirely different route. An experienced captain knows when the time comes to change course. That time is now for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. A new course is the only way that Marylanders can expect the bay to be restored to its former bounty.

J. Charles Fox, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, oversees marine policy programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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