EPA Asked to Toughen Pollution-Prevention Laws for the Chesapeake Bay

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Environmental groups presented a federal official with more than 19,000 signed letters and postcards Tuesday asking the U.S. government to set stricter rules to prevent pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The presentation, held outside an Environmental Protection Agency building in Annapolis, came eight days before one of the most crucial deadlines in the Chesapeake's recent history.

In May, President Obama issued an executive order calling for federal agencies to act more aggressively to help the bay, which remains heavily polluted despite a 25-year government cleanup effort. On Sept. 9, next Wednesday, the agencies must turn in draft reports, revealing how they plan to do it.

Environmental activists offered some suggestions Tuesday: impose anti-pollution rules on smaller farms, not just larger factory-like operations, and require new developments to install measures that filter the storm water that runs off streets and lawns.

On the postcards distributed throughout Baltimore and the Washington suburbs this year, the message was boiled down: "We need to penalize bad actors." Thousands were signed and returned.

"We are presenting the EPA with the frustrations, but also the hopes, of thousands of residents of Maryland and Virginia," said Tommy Landers of the group Environment Maryland.

That group, along with sister organization Environment Virginia, handed out the postcards. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation drummed up other missives, with similar sentiments calling for a newly aggressive approach to bay pollution.

The petitions were accepted by J. Charles Fox, a former environmental activist who serves as a senior adviser on the Chesapeake to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Fox picked up stacks of letters and posed for photos.

He said he was optimistic about the federal plans to be unveiled next week but offered few details. "We need dramatic change and bold new action," Fox said Tuesday. "It is my hope that you will see the beginning of that next week."

The Chesapeake's main problem is the same as it has been for decades: sewage. Farm-animal manure and lawn fertilizer are washed out of pipes and off the land and serve as plant food for underwater algae. The resulting algae blooms choke off underwater oxygen, leaving fish, crabs and oysters, already beset by heavy fishing, in suffocating "dead zones."

This summer, watermen near Tangier Island, Va., have found a profusion of orange, fuzzy balls of algae in the grass beds they scrape for crabs. A blogger for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation likened them to the "tribbles" of "Star Trek" fame.

To solve these problems, the EPA will have to overcome the kind of opposition that has slowed efforts to save the bay. Farmers, for instance, are responsible for a large share of the bay's pollution but say that new federal pollution rules, or new fines for violating them, could be a heavy burden.

"It certainly doesn't make sense, in our view, to establish standards that current farmers, family farmers, are unable to meet," said John Bell, counsel for government affairs at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He said farmers should instead be given funding and technical advice to make changes to keep pollution from washing downstream.

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