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News Opinion Editorial

Chesapeake's new threat — lawyers

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay to better health, or at least slowing the pace of pollution into it, is neither easy nor inexpensive. Yet it's worth pursuing and ultimately is a smart investment, so important is the estuary's future to Maryland's economy and quality of life. But as useful and broadly popular as that effort may be, there are always bound to be some who will oppose it, if only because it requires some degree of personal sacrifice.

Over the years, there have been farmers, developers, manufacturers and various others who pollute the Chesapeake Bay who have balked at the cost and inconvenience of changing their ways. Add to this list the latest group to oppose the cleanup: elected leaders in a handful of rural counties who are worried that some improvements — particularly in the area of storm water management — are simply not affordable.

To some degree, that's understandable. The recession hit many local governments hard, and counties have had to trim expenses, go without employee pay raises, and in some cases downsize their workforces. They see the federally supervised Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and specifically Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan (collectively referred to as the "pollution diet") as a threat to their financial well-being.

Seizing on this discontent, a Baltimore law firm has sought to gather support for a potential lawsuit. At least seven counties have reportedly already signed up. That's disconcerting. Local governments have a right to seek redress for regulations they regard as unfair, but they ought not to invent excuses for avoiding their responsibilities. So far, the scientific claims made by the complainants sound suspiciously like the latter.

Take, for instance, the sudden interest in the Conowingo Dam. The opponents would have us believe that the nutrients flowing over the dam — particularly as the result of storms pushing around the growing amount of silt that has accumulated behind it — make the local pollution negligible by comparison. Thus, why force expensive fixes on them when nobody has solved the Conowingo problem?

But while nutrients do flow down the Susquehanna River (still the source of about half the freshwater flowing to the Chesapeake Bay), and the aging dam's declining ability to trap sediments is a concern, it hardly negates an equally justified concern about local pollution problems. Dredging behind the Conowingo (or other possible fixes at the site) won't help Chester River spawning grounds or Choptank River oyster beds. The declining health of tributaries is at least as much of a concern as the bay's main stem, and the tributaries are hardly affected by Susquehanna pollutants.

Not every rural county is joining this effort. Some, like Talbot and Worcester, see the benefits of a cleaner bay. Meanwhile, the scientific assertions made by the law firm have found few supporters among those who have spent a lifetime studying the Chesapeake Bay, arguably the most researched estuary in the world. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker has suggested the lawyers at Funk & Bolton are merely "preying on the fear that counties have over how to pay for cleanup efforts."

The good news is that many of the initial estimates of the cost of compliance have been far too high. In Frederick County, for instance, the estimate for improvements to storm water drainage system, the highest single cost to comply with the new pollution standards, has fallen about $400 million. Others are likely to find the same pattern as they begin to better understand the nature of the problem and rely less on hard construction (fewer drainage pipes and more storm water gardens, for instance).

If local leaders are concerned about others who pollute, there are certainly things they can do about it. Lobbying for solutions at Conowingo (including financial participation by owner Exelon Corp.) is entirely appropriate. So is supporting alternative forms of pollution controls in Maryland or the other Chesapeake Bay Watershed states. But none of that should absolve them of the responsibility to clean up their own backyards, which is what tougher standards over drainage, septic and sewage systems and "smart growth" standards on development can accomplish.

After all, if a legal challenge to the cleanup effort succeeds or even delays progress, who wins, exactly? Surely not the residents of Maryland, the plaintiffs included.

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