Agency faults cleanup of bay

Federal-states program uses misleading data, GAO asserts in report

November 16, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

The government program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay lacks credibility because it uses misleading numbers that underestimate pollution and exaggerate successes, a federal agency reported yesterday.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is run by the federal and state governments, should have independent scientists reviewing its reports to make sure they don't sugar-coat truths about the bay's health.

Environmentalists complain that such exaggerations allow federal officials and the leaders of states surrounding the bay to make impressive-sounding claims that help them politically while undermining public support for increased funding and stronger pollution controls.

"Given the billions of dollars that have already been invested in this project, and the billions more that are almost certainly needed, stakeholders and the public should have ready access to reliable information that presents an accurate assessment of restoration progress," the GAO report says.

Advocacy groups, notably the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, regularly issue negative reports about the bay's health. But the regular State of the Bay reports by the government-funded bay program have been rosier, claiming some impressive-sounding numbers that might not have been justified, according to the GAO report.

The Washington Post reported in July 2004 that the bay program had claimed that the flow of major pollutants from rivers into the nation's largest estuary fell by nearly 40 percent over two decades. The numbers turned out to be based on inaccurate computer modeling instead of water sampling data, which showed no significant declines, the Post reported.

U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and John W. Warner of Virginia asked the GAO to investigate whether the bay program had been "significantly overstating" how much it had cleaned up the bay.

Maryland's senators sent President Bush a letter yesterday urging him to take responsibility for the failures of the program, which is led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The federal bureaucracy charged with protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay is falling down on the job," Mikulski said.

Michele St. Martin, spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, declined to respond directly. But she said: "We are all working together to restore the bay to healthy conditions."

Rebecca Hanmer, director of the bay program, said it is conducting a "rigorous review" of how it reports on the bay's health. The program will separate reports on the condition of the bay from reports on government programs to improve the environment. It also will more clearly label which data are based on water sampling and which are from computer modeling, she said.

Chris Conner, a spokesman for the bay program, said a few changes have been made. The organization on its Web site now posts the word "simulated" prominently before computer modeling estimates showing a 62 million-pound annual reduction in nitrogen pollution from 1983 to 2003.

The GAO report said the federal government, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia have contributed about $3.7 billion to bay recovery efforts since 1995. The report does not suggest that any of this money was misspent, but it says the bay program has failed to provide a coordinated cleanup strategy that can allow the states to meet water-quality goals set for 2010. At a time of federal budget cuts, at least another $13 billion would be needed to meet those goals, the report suggests.

Roy Hoagland, a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said inaccurate reporting weakens the political will to pay for bay cleanup. "Misleading the public leads to misleading politicians and misleading allocations of funding," Hoagland said. "It's a simple basic tenet that government is supposed to be honest."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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