Residents throughout the Chesapeake Bay region have been confronted by a steady flow of troubling news stories concerning the health of the bay. Oyster harvests have fallen to record lows, the crab population has been pushed to the point of collapse, and 70 percent of the bay's rockfish are infected with a little-understood disease that is believed to be fatal for the fish and dangerous for those who handle the fish.
The state of the bay is a reflection of the state of the bay restoration effort, and the full extent of the political failure is only now coming into focus. The Chesapeake Bay Program, a 20-year effort by the Environmental Protection Agency that receives more than $20 million a year, is under congressional investigation for allegedly overstating pollution reduction achievements. A majority of the lawmakers who serve on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative commission tasked with promoting bay-friendly legislation, have been found to have failing environmental voting records. The state of Virginia continues to spend less on environmental protection per person than just about any state in the union, and Maryland has cut roughly $150 million in annual spending from the budgets of its two environmental protection agencies since 2002.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the self-proclaimed "watchdog" for the bay, is also at fault. The group has no affiliated political action committee, does not contribute to political campaigns, does not run issue advertisements, does not even advertise the voting records of elected officials and rarely engages in legal battles. The foundation has not opted out of the political process for lack of funds. With its 175 full-time employees and $11.4 million headquarters on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, the foundation has quadrupled in size during the past decade, with annual revenue exceeding $18 million.
It is also interesting to note where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation raises its funds. The group received a six-figure contribution from the Constellation Energy Golf Classic (Constellation Energy is a giant regional energy company that has been widely criticized for releasing pollutants that are believed to contribute to the bay's decline). The foundation also recently received a $100,000 Legacy Grant, funded in part by Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, a company that discharged 130,000 pounds of nitrogen into the pollution-impaired James River in 2003.
It's no surprise that the public is losing faith in a restoration bureaucracy that it fears is more concerned with self-preservation than environmental improvement. It is becoming increasingly clear that the laws and resources that would be necessary for the restoration effort to succeed have yet to materialize, and the public is increasingly looking to its elected officials for answers. The environmental groups that complain the restoration effort lacks "political will" should take steps to generate the political will, and our elected officials should answer the call to action.
-- Howard Ernst
is the author of "Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay."