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Rescue Effort For Bay Sinking

Lengthy Planning Slows Changes

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page B01

Halfway through a 10-year program to save the Chesapeake Bay, political leaders are acknowledging that the vaunted cleanup is faltering and are calling for major changes midstream.

Once touted as a national model, the cleanup effort has unraveled into what some environmentalists call a bureaucratic farce. Five years of planning, they say, have left the bay no cleaner than it was when the "Chesapeake 2000" pact was signed.

Watermen empty their catch on the Chesapeake Bay near Solomons, Md. The oyster harvest continues to suffer. (The Washington Post)

Cleaning Up the Bay Progress of a few important goals for the bay, based on information from the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program.
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An Eastern Shore congressman is contemplating legislation that would replace the voluntary cleanup strategy with strict regulatory requirements. Governors are pledging to walk the halls of Congress lobbying for $12 billion in needed support. And scientists are exploring the mass introduction of a Chinese oyster to replace the vanishing native breed.

"Business as usual won't work," said former Virginia governor Gerald L. Baliles, who led a committee that studied the bay cleanup last year. "More of the same is asking for trouble."

The agreement to clean the bay in 10 years promised twice as much underwater grass, 10 times as many oysters and water as pristine as in the 1950s. It was touted as "America's premier watershed restoration partnership," supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and representatives from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Thirteen years before, the same entities had pledged to reduce the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay by 40 percent. When the deadline came in 2000, they had fallen short.

The new agreement, an attempt to jump-start the effort, made more sweeping promises.

The idea was, "if we can do this . . . nobody else in the world has an excuse," said William Matuszeski, who was overseeing the bay cleanup for the EPA at the time.

It was a daunting task: to reduce pollution spewing from a multitude of city sewers, farms and factories across a 64,000-square-mile watershed. And the tools were unwieldy, including several federal agencies and an array of state governments that eventually expanded to include Delaware, West Virginia and New York.

But even so, cleanup officials say, they expected to accomplish more in the first half-decade than they have.

"We've made only modest progress," Rebecca W. Hanmer, the current head of the EPA bay program, conceded in a recent interview.


• The 2000 agreement promised to attack the bay's problem of low dissolved oxygen, a condition in which fish and crabs can't breathe.

To do this, officials would need to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, which are found in suburban lawn fertilizer, processed sewage and animal manure. When they are washed downstream to the bay, these pollutants feed algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water.

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