Bay wins Pentagon treaty

July 21, 2006

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney both have weekend retreats on the Chesapeake Bay at St. Michaels. Could that be why the scofflaw Pentagon has agreed to ante up its share for upgrading sewage treatment plants that drain into the bay?

Whatever it took was influence well spent. A silly semantic dispute worthy of neither politicians nor lawyers was shelved in favor of a $22 million commitment by the Defense Department to clean up its act at five installations in Maryland over the next four years.

The result should be far more directly beneficial to the bay than if Pentagon lawyers hadn't quibbled about whether Maryland has the authority to impose its bay restoration fee - more commonly known as the "flush tax" - on federal agencies. The flush tax bill for the department would have been only about $1 million a year.

Legal technicalities aside, the public relations posture of the Pentagon in this dispute was indefensible. Its outposts at Fort Meade, Aberdeen and Charles County have been among the bay's biggest polluters, guilty of sewage spills and other transgressions. To argue that military bases should be exempt from a fee charged to every other commercial and residential user of sewage treatment or septic services in the state was absurd.

In fact, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly imposed the fee two years ago in part because they could not secure adequate federal help in bringing scores of sewage plants up to standards necessary to meet bay cleanup goals set by a regional pact to which the federal government is a party.

Even so, a common-sense agreement by the Pentagon to become part of the solution rather than battle in court in order to remain a large part of the problem is a surprising and welcome development.

It should set a precedent for future cooperation between state and federal agencies to address the many contributing factors to bay pollution. A clean bay is in the interest of everyone who lives, works or plays here. Maybe Rummy and Dick are spreading the word.

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