A political divide over the environment

Brown, Hogan disagree on how to address Chesapeake pollution

September 26, 2014|By Timothy B. Wheeler | The Baltimore Sun

To hear Larry Hogan tell it, the multibillion-dollar effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has been a dismal failure — and the biggest problem is getting Pennsylvania and New York to stop sending sediment pollution down the Susquehanna River.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate vows to "stand up" for Maryland farmers, watermen and homeowners, who he contends have been unfairly burdened with the bay's restoration, and says he'd take the other states to court if necessary to get them to do more.

His Democratic opponent, Anthony Brown — and most scientists — say it's more complicated than that. They say Maryland needs to reduce homegrown pollution of its rivers and streams to help the bay.

In electing Maryland's next governor this fall, voters will be choosing whether to stay the course on restoring the Chesapeake or take it in a very different direction. They also could be deciding if hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will go forward in Western Maryland, and if electric utility customers will keep paying a little more to put wind turbines and solar energy panels across the state.

Brown basically stands by the green initiatives of Gov. Martin O'Malley, under whom he's served the past eight years as lieutenant governor. He vows to pursue "environmental justice" for all Marylanders, promote renewable energy to curb climate change and work to reduce pollution from sewage plants, urban runoff and farms.

Hogan contends that the O'Malley administration has botched the bay restoration, saddling Marylanders with fees and regulations while ignoring pollution pouring into the Chesapeake from out of state.

"I think the biggest threat to the bay is the policies of Anthony Brown and Martin O'Malley," Hogan said in an interview.

The environment rarely is a big issue in any election, though candidates of both parties pay lip service to the bay. Environmental groups routinely back Democratic candidates, and this election is no different. Brown has picked up a series of endorsements from activists fearful Hogan would cut funding and shelve programs they believe are helping.

Republicans often cede the votes of ardent environmentalists, but Hogan has challenged Brown's green credentials, accusing the O'Malley administration of neglecting Susquehanna pollution and "raiding" more than $1 billion in funds earmarked for land preservation and sewage treatment.

"I've been in the state since 1986, and I don't remember the bay being an issue, at least in this way," says Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He said it's unusual as well to hear a conservative Republican candidate argue that he'd do a better job cleaning up the bay.

Hogan stresses the threat to the bay from sediment piled up behind Conowingo Dam in the Susquehanna. The Republican promises to press the dam's owner, Exelon Corp., and the federal government to dredge out the muck, which can kill underwater vegetation and smother oysters. He also vows to push upriver states to stop letting mud and silt wash down the river, which he calls the bay's most overlooked problem.

As the bay's biggest tributary, the Susquehanna dumps more sediment into the Chesapeake than any other river. Tens of millions of pollution-laden tons have built up behind the dam, where they add to the bay's problems when storm-driven floods stir it up. But recent research suggests that the Susquehanna is responsible for less of the bay's sediment problems than once thought. A key study found the dam contributed only a fifth of the sediment that turned the upper bay into a murky mess after Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, the second-worst deluge to hit the region in 40 years.

"It isn't the drop-dead problem that some people would imagine," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

More important, say Boesch and other scientists, the bay's biggest problem is nutrient pollution, not sediment. Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage plants, farm and urban runoff, and other sources feed the algae blooms and dead zones hurting fish, crabs and shellfish. And while the Susquehanna contributes a large share of those nutrients, the water quality in much of Maryland's portion of the bay and in the state's rivers is hurt more by locally generated pollution, not what's coming from Pennsylvania and New York, scientists say.

Another Hogan pledge is to try to repeal the "rain tax," the stormwater pollution cleanup fees that the state required Baltimore City and Maryland's nine largest counties to charge. Hogan also says he'd hold off imposing any new regulations meant to reduce polluted runoff from farm fields, saying he believes they'd hurt farming and the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.

"Quite frankly, I think farmers and watermen and homeowners have done their fair share, and continue to do so," he said.

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