Broken Promises on the Bay

The decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay has resulted in fewer jobs for watermen and a shift in the local economy.Video by Whitney Shefte/
Chesapeake Bay Watershed
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Government administrators in charge of an almost $6 billion cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay tried to conceal for years that their effort was failing -- even issuing reports overstating their progress -- to preserve the flow of federal and state money to the project, former officials say.

The cleanup, which had its 25th anniversary this month, seems doomed to miss its second official deadline for achieving major reductions in pollution by 2010.

The goal of rescuing North America's largest estuary was formally entrusted in 1983 to a group of federal, state and local authorities under the loose guidance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The task: controlling runoff from 4.8 million acres of farmland, installing upgrades at more than 400 sewage plants and managing the catch of more than 11,000 licensed watermen.

But the agencies charged with the cleanup have never mustered enough legal muscle or political will to overcome opposition from the agricultural and fishing industries and other interests.

Instead of strengthening their tactics, though, they tried to make the cleanup effort look less hopeless than it was.

That picture emerges from internal documents and from interviews with current and former officials involved in the cleanup, including two who served as director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office, the closest thing to a "bay czar" that the decentralized effort has.

William Matuszeski, who headed the program from 1991 to 2001, described how the program repeatedly released data that exaggerated its success, hoping to influence Congress. His successor, Rebecca W. Hanmer, said she was instructed by regional leaders in 2002 not to acknowledge that the effort would fall short of its 2010 goals.

"To protect appropriations you were getting, you had to show progress," Matuszeski said. "So I think we had to overstate our progress." Several state governors said they were unaware of inflated data, and another EPA official disputed Matuszeski's account.

The cleanup's failure has prompted a coalition of environmentalists and scientists this month to call for replacing the EPA's approach with firm regulations on farms, sewer plants and developers. A group of watermen has joined environmentalists in threatening a lawsuit, hoping a judge can force the EPA to quicken the pace of the cleanup.

For the bay, the consequences are clear: The vast marsh-rimmed estuary has just as many pollution-driven "dead zones" as it did in the 1980s and less of the life -- crabs, oysters, watermen -- that made it famous.

"It'll always be beautiful," said Bernie Fowler, 84, a former waterman, county commissioner and state senator from Calvert County, who has argued for cleaning the bay since 1970. "But there's nothing out there living."

The 1980s and 1990s

For centuries, the Chesapeake was an environmental superconductor: 200 miles of nutrient-rich water, full of sturgeon and ducks and enormous reefs of oysters.

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