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EPA Vows to Become Chesapeake Bay's Protector

Government leaders have promised sine 1983 to enforce rules to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but little has been done. The EPA says that will change.
Government leaders have promised sine 1983 to enforce rules to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but little has been done. The EPA says that will change. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

The federal government said Thursday that it would seek an unprecedented role as the environmental police of the Chesapeake Bay -- enforcing new rules on farmers and keeping a closer eye on state-level bureaucrats -- in an effort to halt the estuary's long decline.

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If the Environmental Protection Agency's plan works, a bay known for soft-touch oversight could become one of the most aggressively regulated bodies of water in the country.

"People don't believe there are going to be consequences if they don't follow" some pollution rules now, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. She said the agency's tougher stance on the Chesapeake could be copied with other watersheds around the country: "We want to make this a laboratory to show that it can be done."

Thursday's report was only a draft proposal. Officials said they would update it in November and begin implementing some of the ideas this fall.

To longtime residents of the Washington area, the EPA's promise of a new approach may sound painfully familiar. In 1983, 1987 and again in 2000, government leaders promised to clean up the Chesapeake by reducing the sewage and manure that wash downstream and help create "dead zones" in its waters.

Every time, they failed: 25 years into the government-led cleanup effort, only about 58 percent of the required anti-pollution measures are complete. On their watch, the numbers of bay oysters and blue crabs fell into abyssal declines, devastating a centuries-old watermen's culture.

During part of that time, cleanup officials have said, they sought to disguise their shortfalls by releasing statistics that exaggerated progress in reducing the bay's pollution.

On Thursday, environmental groups said they were hopeful that this time would be different.

They said the EPA is threatening to do something it has never done before -- punish states that don't meet specific environmental targets. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called these ideas "the edge pieces of the jigsaw puzzle" required to really improve the bay.

"That would be a game-changing play in this really complicated game," said Tommy Landers of the group Environment Maryland. "What we have been calling for is a commitment to enforcement and accountability. And we are seeing the signs of that from the EPA."

Thursday's announcement was, for these groups, the second bit of good news in a week.

On Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said he was introducing legislation that would give government stronger enforcement powers against polluters and allow farmers to sell "credits" for reducing pollution more than their allotted share. Cardin said he wanted all the measures needed to restore the bay's health in place by 2020; the EPA said yesterday that it would set a deadline of 2025.

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