EPA's Chuck Fox Hopes to Ride Political Tide to Improve Chesapeake Bay's Health

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An old friend recalls Chuck Fox once pointing out a window at the shimmering waters of the Chesapeake Bay and proclaiming, "That is my mission in life."

It's not a moment he remembers, but he smiles at the retelling and concedes, "That sounds like something I would say."

At 48, the man who just took over federal stewardship of the world's largest estuary has spent half his life fretting over the state of the Chesapeake. As the newly named senior adviser on the bay at the Environmental Protection Agency, he inherits a 25-year mission that has stumbled, faltered and ultimately failed to clean up the increasingly cloudy waters despite almost $6 billion in spending.

They are intimately familiar waters to J. Charles Fox, his name on deeds and diplomas but not in practice. He lives beside the bay, paddling to work on it when he can, and his sailboat and kayak have nosed into nearly every cove and cranny in its more than 2,000-mile shoreline.

To hear him tell it, he arrived in Annapolis in 1983 a wide-eyed, naive Midwesterner whose passion for the environment grew from family forays into the woods of Wisconsin with a canoe strapped to the car roof.

"I remember coming out here looking to find lakes, and I found the bay instead," he said. "I've been in love with it ever since."

Those who recall Fox's debut 25 years ago as an operative for the Environmental Policy Institute remember the skill with which he engineered the legislative fight to get polluting phosphate detergents banned in Maryland.

"He rattled a lot of cages," said Don Baugh, now the vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the largest private advocacy group for the bay. "He was sharp, bright and committed to the bay."

Fox and his allies faced off against detergent industry lobbyists who had a war chest of $300,000 to help persuade entrenched legislators to vote against the ban.

"We were both very new at it and had to simultaneously learn the complexities of the issue along with the complexities of the political system and landscape," recalled Ann Swanson, now the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which includes the governmental leaders of the three states in the bay's watershed. "Chuck was always tenacious, always ready to make a good argument and always ready to laugh along the way."

After cajoling, coalition building, horse trading votes and arm twisting, they got the phosphate ban passed. And from that fight there emerged a hallmark of Fox's character, noted by Swanson and others who know him: "He maintained his popularity even while frustrating his opponents," Swanson said.

This is his third incarnation with the EPA. His initial stint during the Clinton administration was interrupted by three years as an administrator in the Maryland Department of the Environment. He returned to the EPA but left again to become secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources during the final years of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration. After the Republicans took over in Annapolis, he went on to work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he managed marine conservation programs.

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