Advocates for cleaning the Chesapeake Bay are growing increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress, and new legal threats are emerging from groups that traditionally have pursued more conciliatory courses.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which historically has worked through regulatory and legislative channels, recently established its first litigation division, and the Maryland Watermen's Association is mulling over an unprecedented class-action suit against polluters. At the same time, spinoff groups of a national organization known as the Waterkeepers Alliance have set up shop on several Chesapeake tributaries, bringing a more aggressive approach to litigation with them.
Progress Minimal On Bay Pollution (The Washington Post, Aug 21, 2004)
Bay's 'Bad Water' Churns Unease (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
3 Senators Seek GAO Review of Bay Cleanup (The Washington Post, Aug 12, 2004)
Md. Watermen Mull Suing Over Bay (The Washington Post, Jul 28, 2004)
EPA Proposal Would Limit Sewage Plant Pollutants (The Washington Post, Jul 26, 2004)
These are signs, some say, that the "Save the Bay" movement, which for more than two decades has put a friendlier face on environmentalism than many other efforts across the country, may be moving toward a more confrontational phase.
"It's only been recently that people have been questioning whether this honest, sincere, concerted effort can get us where we want to go," said Thomas W. Simpson, a University of Maryland professor who studies the bay.
The cooperative approach that some say is eroding began in the early 1980s, when several governors signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
New partnerships were created to oversee the bay's cleanup, including the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program -- billed as "America's premier watershed restoration partnership." More ambitious agreements on the bay followed in 1987 and 2000. To the environmental movement, the message from government was consistent: We're working on it.
"It was a real feeling that 10 years of concerted effort and you could turn this decline around," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, made up of state government officials from around the watershed.
In that atmosphere, an even-keeled environmental group grew to dominate the Chesapeake region: the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This group -- with 116,000 members, a budget of $17.5 million and headquarters on the water just outside Annapolis -- is still the watershed's monolith.
Officials of the bay foundation, which was founded in 1967, say they've always tried to work within the mainstream. They offer educational programs to children, help restore oyster reefs and lobby state and federal officials but shy away from donating to political candidates or launching volleys of lawsuits.
This approach has made the bay foundation a holdover from an earlier era of environmentalism, said Robert J. Brulle, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is still running on the 1960s approach," Brulle said, believing "the only way to accomplish [anything] is to work within the existing system."
In some places, he said, such moderate groups have stalled and more extreme environmentalists broke off. At New York's Love Canal, for instance, residents of a neighborhood atop a chemical dump held EPA officials hostage. In the West, anti-logging activists began sitting atop old-growth trees.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is not yet primed for that kind of radicalism, environmentalists say. But there has been growing unhappiness the past year. Last summer, former U.S. senator Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) marked the 30th anniversary of his proposal for a cooperative bay cleanup by calling for more accountability. "We may in fact have done some of the easier things . . . and now we have to face some of the more difficult ones," Mathias said then. "There's tough times ahead."
Anger over the lack of progress grew after the bay's "dead zone," the area of oxygen-deprived water that strangles plant and animal life, expanded to one of its highest levels ever.