Legislation proposed by Rep. Andy Harris that would direct federal money to study oxygen-starved "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico is facing criticism from some environmentalists who are concerned that the measure would prioritize research over action.
The proposal — the first Harris has introduced since he was elected to the House last year — allocates $18 million a year for four years to study the causes and possible solutions of the low-oxygen zones, which force fish and shellfish to flee. But some environmentalists say the measure would needlessly require scientists to reconsider issues covered in previous studies, delaying remedies.
Under pressure from those critics, the Baltimore County Republican — whose district includes the Eastern Shore — said Wednesday that he would amend his bill to ensure that efforts to reduce dead zones aren't hampered by additional study. His chief goal, he said, is to guarantee that money is set aside for addressing the environmental problem amid Washington's onslaught of spending cuts.
Harris' decision to introduce and then alter the legislation is the latest indication of the tightrope he must walk politically. He represents one of the nation's most important waterways, but he came to power as part of a GOP class bent on cutting environmental regulations that some say stand in the way of job creation.
Harris, who hails from a district long represented by GOP Rep. Wayne Gilchrest — an advocate for the bay — took fire from opponents this month for a vote that would have curbed the Environmental Protection Agency's power to enforce clean water regulations. But he has touted his bill as important to protecting "a national environmental treasure that so many Marylanders depend on" for jobs.
"We don't delay anything. We actually save these programs going forward," Harris, who chairs the House subcommittee on energy and the environment, said when asked about the criticism his bill has received. "It's a very important program. It's a very important issue. We have to continue scientific research."
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network, said she is pleased Harris will change some aspects of the bill and generally supports Congress securing funds for research. But she is concerned that the measure will require scientists to re-study the causes of dead zones, for instance, which she said are well-established.
"It seems like an expenditure of limited funds on a study that is really unnecessary at this point because nothing significant has changed" since the issue was last reviewed in 2007, said Sarthou.
Congress last authorized spending on the issue in 2008, but the law expired last year after lawmakers failed to pass a similar, bipartisan bill. Since then, scientists and environmental advocates have been pressing Harris and others to come up with legislation to make sure funding doesn't run dry.
This year's bill, which also enjoys bipartisan support, passed Harris' subcommittee by a voice vote on July 14. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will take up the measure Thursday.
Dead zones occur when water becomes over-enriched with nutrients from sewage, from fertilizer and animal manure washing off farmland and lawns, and from vehicle and power plant emissions that rain down from the sky. Those nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — feed algae that consume oxygen as they die and decay on the bottom.
Nationwide, the number of water bodies with dead zones increased from 12 prior to 1960 to 300 by 2008, according to a 2008 interagency federal study on the issue.
In the Chesapeake, dissolved oxygen levels on the bottom dip to zero in June from the Bay Bridge south to the Potomac River, forcing fish and crabs into a thinner layer of water as the zone expands through summer. Shrinking the zone has been a central goal of a multistate Chesapeake Bay restoration effort for decades.
Scientists performed comprehensive studies of the phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico in 1999 and 2007. And, in 2008, the government developed an "action plan" that called for reducing the size of the dead zone by cutting nitrogen and phosphorus levels. As originally written, the legislation proposed by Harris would have stopped implementation of that plan until further study could be completed.
The bill did not have a similar requirement for the Chesapeake.
Asked about the requirement, Harris said hearing feedback and making adjustments was part of the legislative process.
Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that halting the efforts under way in the Gulf would have been a "troubling" move. Though he generally supports additional scientific assessment, he is concerned the research called for in the legislation would second-guess work that has already been done.
Harris is in an unusual position because of his district's proximity to the bay and the political realities that have dominated Congress since the GOP captured control of the House in the 2010 midterm election.
Earlier this month, he joined all but 13 Republicans in supporting a proposal that would have limited the EPA's authority to enforce the Clean Water Act by handing more power to state governments. President Barack Obama threatened to veto the legislation, and it has failed to advance in the Democratic-led Senate.
This week, the House is considering a bill that would set the EPA's budget at $7.1 billion, about a $1.5 billion cut. Those cuts will also face scrutiny in the Senate.
Some environmentalists separately raised concerns about the size of the budget Harris has requested in his measure — far less than the $40 million annually that lawmakers sought in 2009 — and the fact that federal agencies would be required to do more with less money. The authorization requests are top-line numbers, and lawmakers generally wind up approving less in actual spending.
Harris countered that the push in Washington to cut budget deficits, which he has supported, threatens spending on the dead zone effort altogether.
"We are going to have to ask people to do more with less," he said.