Chesapeake Bay advocates call EPA cleanup plan too weak

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

A day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailed its plans to crack down on Chesapeake Bay pollution, a collection of scientists, environmentalists and ex-politicians said Wednesday that its approach isn't tough enough.

The 38-member group, brought together by a former Maryland state senator, said the EPA is not moving aggressively enough to curb pollution that drains off farmland or to protect the forests that serve as a natural water filter. And although the EPA announced plans Tuesday to sanction states that lag behind their cleanup goals, the group called for Congress to pass legislation to expand that power to punish.

These were not new faces: Most of the 38 have spent years calling for change in the cleanup of the bay. By calling for it again Wednesday, they did not alter the battle lines for next year's political fighting, when federal efforts to overhaul the save-the-bay effort will face powerful opposition.

But many said this was the right moment to underline the fight's importance.

"If this mission fails," said former Maryland state senator Bernie Fowler (D), the government "will have placed the Chesapeake Bay on death row, from which there is very little appeal."

The group, gathering at the Maryland State House, included several "waterkeepers" -- advocates for the Patuxent, Severn, Choptank and other bay tributaries -- and prominent scientists who study crabs, oysters and water pollution. Former U.S. representative Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) and former U.S. senator Joseph D. Tydings (D-Md.) also were there.

They had been organized by former Maryland state senator Gerald W. Winegrad (D). He said new urgency is needed on the Chesapeake, after an EPA-led cleanup effort that has lasted 26 years has failed to ease the bay's problems with "dead zones," where fish and crabs can't breathe.

"Where are we? Repeated violations. No sanctions. No actions," Winegrad said. "We're saying . . . that enough is enough. The politics of postponement have to stop now."

The bay has received a historic amount of federal attention this year. The EPA has said it will set a pollution "diet" for the Chesapeake next year and divide the cutbacks among the watershed states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York, as well as the District.

The agency said it plans to punish states that don't do their part; sanctions could include some prohibitions on new subdivisions or sewage plants, more restrictions on farms and tighter controls over federal grants to states.

But the group of 38 said the federal government should do more than that.

They said all but the smallest farms should face tight restrictions on the disposal of animal manure, which can wash into bay tributaries and feed the algae that cause dead zones. And they said the EPA should require forests to be protected -- or replanted -- on 85 percent of the shoreline of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

The group also called for Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) that would give the EPA more muscle to punish states. The bill has been opposed by agricultural groups and home development firms, which say it will impose crushing costs on their industries.

In the back of the room was J. Charles Fox, the EPA's Chesapeake czar. Fox said later that some of the group's proposals had to be dealt with by Congress because they were not within the EPA's powers. Fox said the group, which included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, had a strident tone.

"These have been strong voices," Fox said. "But I think the voice today is becoming much sharper."

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