GAO Denounces Bay Cleanup Efforts

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The government agency leading the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay has consistently overstated its progress while minimizing threats to the bay and its own failures to address them, according to a federal oversight report released yesterday.

A Government Accountability Office review found that the Chesapeake Bay Program Office -- an arm of the Environmental Protection Agency -- has no coordinated, comprehensive plan for cutting pollution in the bay, even after nearly $6 billion in state and federal money has been devoted to the effort in the past decade.

The office also does a poor job informing the public of its work, the GAO report concludes, and its annual State of the Chesapeake Bay report "is neither an effective reporting tool nor does it provide credible information on the bay's current health status."

The criticism comes amid growing angst among policymakers and the public that an agreement reached five years ago for cleaning the bay by 2010 could fail without a big political and financial boost. In the agreement, known as Chesapeake 2000, the region's political and environmental leaders proposed cutting the amount of major pollutants that enter the bay nearly in half over a decade.

The cleanup, led by Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District, along with nearly a dozen federal agencies, is known as the Chesapeake Bay Program.

In a letter to President Bush yesterday, Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D), and Virginia Sen. John W. Warner (R), who commissioned the GAO report, asked Bush to appoint a task force to "conduct a top-to-bottom review" of federal programs and resources aimed at the bay cleanup.

The GAO report "raises serious concerns about the Bay Program's ability to achieve the goal of restoring the health of the Bay," the senators wrote. "We have written to you in the past appealing for help for the Chesapeake Bay and urge you, once again . . . to make the Bay's restoration a top priority."

The three senators requested the GAO report after a July 2004 Washington Post article, describing problems with the program office, prompted a congressional inquiry. The office was described in the article as having boasted of a nearly 40 percent decline in major pollutants from the bay's biggest tributaries since 1985 -- yet monitoring data from the same period showed no such decline.

The GAO report takes the office to task for mixing monitoring data with computerized models, which are meant merely as predictions. That flaw, combined with a lack of independence in the Bay Program's reporting process, has led to "negative trends being downplayed and a rosier picture of the bay's health being reported," the report says.

Though the office has more than 100 indicators for measuring bay restoration progress and guiding decisions to improve it, "the Bay Program lacks an integrated approach that would allow it to collectively determine what the individual measures mean for the overall health of the bay," according to the report. For example, the report says, although the office tracks crab, oyster and rockfish populations, it has no means for determining what the measures taken together say about the progress made toward restoring the bay's aquatic life.

The report recommends that the office improve and revamp its assessment and reporting approaches and develop a "comprehensive, coordinated implementation strategy" that is achievable, given the program's limited funding. It also suggests that the office's reports undergo independent review to verify their accuracy and clarity.

"The EPA and all Bay Program partners are in general agreement" with the recommendations, said Chesapeake Bay Program Director Rebecca Hanmer. "The program has been working on these issues for over a year now."

She said that the office plans to separate reports on the bay's health from reports on restoration efforts, which use computer modeling to predict likely outcomes. But she stopped short of committing to an independent review of the process, saying, "I think that scientific peer review is something that is more appropriate for the indicators themselves."

The report, she said, "is a communications tool."

At a time when the Bush administration has recommended cuts in funding for such key bay cleanup proposals as sewage treatment plant upgrades, the problems at the Chesapeake Bay Program Office "are consistent with those policy choices," said Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

The findings "reflect the fact that absent an increase in political will and a significant increase in funding," Chesapeake 2000 goals won't be met, he said. "We have the science and the solutions. All we need is the implementation and the dollars."

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