Officials vow new bay effort

Md., Va., U.S. authorities say they'll draft plan but decline to set target date

November 21, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - State and federal officials pledged yesterday to redouble their efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay but declined to set a new target date for when they plan to do it.

Instead, the officials - including the governors of Maryland and Virginia - agreed to meet again in the spring to adopt an ultimate deadline.

And they promised to lay out detailed, two-year cleanup plans intended to put more pressure on elected leaders such as themselves to make progress in the 25-year restoration effort that has left the bay's water quality as poor now as it was when the campaign began.

"We need to change the way we've come at this," said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who took over leadership of the restoration effort yesterday from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. The two governors, both Democrats, said they shared in the frustration felt by many bay advocates over the lack of improvement in bay water quality, despite billions of dollars spent and a multitude of laws and initiatives.

In addition to setting two-year milestones, the officials agreed to hold themselves more accountable by commissioning an independent group of scientists to monitor their actions.

The annual bay restoration meeting, which drew the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, the mayor of Washington and top officials from Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York, was marked by a demonstration organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to protest the slow pace of bay cleanup. The Annapolis-based environmental group has threatened to sue the federal government for allegedly shirking its legal responsibility to clean up the bay.

Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said the meeting produced "nothing new."

"Set one goal and meet it, and we will cheer," he said.

Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government agreed in 2000 to reduce nutrient pollution fouling the bay's waters by about 40 percent by 2010. But at last year's annual cleanup update, officials acknowledged the goal would not be met by the deadline.

The bay's health is in many respects as bad or worse than it was when the cleanup effort began in December 1983. Its water quality has actually declined in the years since, according to a rating by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The same is true of water quality in key Maryland tributaries. Farm runoff remains the leading source of nutrient pollution fouling the bay, but other, largely unchecked sources include runoff from developed land and fallout from power plants and motor vehicle exhaust.

Officials initially set 2000 as the deadline for restoring bay water quality but pushed the target back to 2010 when it became apparent they weren't close to reaching the goals of the agreements they'd signed. Eight years ago, they agreed to begin mandating pollution reductions by regulation if their mostly voluntary "partnership" failed to make adequate progress by the end of this decade. Officials now say progress has been so slow it may be 2040 before water quality goals are reached.

O'Malley, Kaine, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and others huddled privately for three hours at Union Station here before emerging to announce what they'd agreed upon - which included a pledge to push for development of cleaner new "biofuels" distilled from wood products and switchgrass rather than corn.

They had been expected to discuss setting a new deadline for the cleanup effort, and how to ensure that the states and federal government will do what's needed in the ensuing years to make progress this time.

With most of the bay and its rivers fouled by nutrient and sediment pollution, the EPA is legally required to draw up a plan for clamping down on those pollutants in the region, with which the states would have to comply. The agency has pledged to develop that plan by the end of 2010, but there are no requirements in the federal Clean Water Act for how quickly the pollution reductions must be achieved.

The bay foundation has threatened to sue the federal government for shirking its legal responsibility to pursue the bay cleanup more aggressively.

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