Cardin's misguided environmentalist critics

August 26, 2010

An opinion piece recently published in The Baltimore Sun by a "waterkeeper" and a "riverkeeper" ("Cardin bill undermines Clean Water Act," Commentary, Aug. 25) is both shortsighted and misleading in several respects. A step back and a broader look are called for.

In 1957, then-Senator John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles in Courage." His book detailed notable acts of political courage by eight U.S. Senators. The first chapter, where Kennedy explores the responsibility of elected officials, is worth re-reading frequently.

Perhaps it doesn't yet rise to the courage exhibited by Senators Daniel Webster, Sam Houston and others, but in fighting for the "Chesapeake Bay Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act", Senator Benjamin L. Cardin has shown the kind of political courage that Kennedy so much admired.

At first glance, it doesn't seem like merely introducing a thoughtful and reasonable bill should require political courage. Far from undercutting the 38-year-old Clean Water Act, Senator Cardin proposes to update the act's Chesapeake Bay section to make it more effective. Many of us who have been working for years to restore the bay have had to face up to an unpleasant truth: the Clean Water Act has brought us a long way, but it is simply not strong enough to get the job done. The key problem is that the Clean Water Act simply does not require needed reductions from "non-point" sources of pollution such as farm runoff, which is the major contributor of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollution to the bay and thousands of other lakes, streams, rivers, and coastal areas across the nation.

Senator Cardin's smart approach to amending the Chesapeake Bay section uses some of the best water science available in the world to determine the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that the bay can sustain and be healthy. It requires all polluters to reduce their share of the excess over the next 15 years. It tracks the highly effective federal Clean Air Act in allowing each state to reach the target in its own way. It proposes increasing federal penalties against states that fail to stay on track. It proposes a system to make needed pollution reductions as cost-effective as possible, and establishes new grant programs, including a large one for cities and towns to manage runoff. It proposes that large new buildings anywhere in the watershed meet the same standards for handling runoff. It clarifies that if a landowner is reducing pollution as required, she or he can't be prosecuted, and it allows states to regulate major non-point pollution sources while ensuring that governments can't harass citizens over trivialities. Both Environmental Protection Agency lawyers and lawyers from several major environmental groups judged the legislation to be worth of support, and a coalition of more than 120 organizations has made its passage the top priority.

However, in this divisive, say-anything, sound-bite driven political season, even doing something smart and logical can be an act of political courage.

For his leadership, Senator Cardin is getting viciously attacked. "No" is one of the easiest and often most effective things for humans to say, as anyone arguing with a tired two-year-old has seen. The American Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural industry groups are screaming "no" at the Cardin bill, with overheated rhetoric, false statements and absurd threats, notwithstanding more than $50 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies that agriculture receives from the federal government.

Some groups representing the wastewater industry and municipal governments are screaming "no" because of the cost of improving ineffective pollution control infrastructure, despite billions a year of available federal assistance provided by the legislation. Now even some so-called environmentalists have turned to "no", wanting to preserve, as in a museum, every word of 38-year old legislation that can't finish the job of cleaning up the bay.

In Profiles in Courage, Senator Kennedy wrote, "Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests such as John Quincy Adams – under attack in 1807 – could never have envisioned. "

Sixty-five years after Kennedy wrote those words, making progress on tough societal issues such as restoring and sustaining adequate supplies of fresh, clean water is much worse than Kennedy could have envisioned. It is surely true, as the waterkeeper and the riverkeeper wrote, that "the reason why the bay isn't clean today is because of a decades-long lack of political will at both the state and federal level." However, Senator Cardin, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and other supporters of the legislation are working hard to change that with a new and more effective approach. "No" is easy, but courage is hard and needs to be celebrated, not denigrated, when it is exhibited.

A fight for the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act is a profile in courage. So will be its passage this fall.

Doug Siglin

The writer is federal affairs director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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