Baltimore Sun

Measuring candidates' stands on Chesapeake

THIS IS THE FIRST of two columns on Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and how Maryland's environment might fare if they were governor.

First, some context. The internationally acclaimed Chesapeake Bay restoration, of which Maryland is a part, is in dire need of a jump-start, if not flirting with collapse.

Fifteen years of work hasn't budged the bay's problems of extensive, deepwater "dead zones" and near-90 percent losses of underwater seagrasses critical to fish, waterfowl and crabs.

Of the three major sources of bay pollution -- sewage, fallout from dirty air and runoff from urban and agricultural land -- only the first has gotten much better.

To restore water quality and avoid federally imposed regulations by 2011, bay pollution must fall at least twice as much in the next eight years as in the past 15, a task that will cost several billion dollars.

Maryland, warts and all, is the clear leader in this effort, the one that usually ends up pushing its main bay-watershed neighbors, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The task will be hard under any circumstances, especially with added pollution from a million newcomers to the bay region each decade.

Without the very best -- dare I say passionate -- environmental leadership from Maryland's governor, a bay comeback won't happen.

How do the candidates measure up?

Sewage treatment

By applying the best technology available to all major sewage plants, Maryland and its neighbor states could get a quarter to a third of the huge pollution reductions needed to restore the bay. It would face opposition from county and city governments who fear the technological leap and the costs. But it is the single quickest, surest way to advance the bay's health.

Ehrlich, in an interview, said, "I will literally beg, borrow and steal" to do the best sewage technology. That and ending overflows from older sewage systems (which don't contribute much, overall, to bay pollution) is his overriding environmental priority, he says.

Beyond this, the Republican candidate offers few specifics or funding sources, though he says he would bring superior fiscal responsibility to the state, "and you can't have an environmental program if you can't pay for it."

Democrat Townsend says she also sees maximizing the gains from sewage treatment plants as a cornerstone of bay restoration. She would push for a renewed federal program, as existed during the 1970s, to pay for more of the costs.

"It's a national problem, and demands a national solution. But if that doesn't happen, we still have to do the best we can."

She says the state's capital budget, which could be used to finance sewerage upgrades, "has more leeway in it than the operating budget," even with looming budget deficits.

Townsend says, "I understand these issues." She points to her work in the mid-1980s as a "sewage and sludge attorney" for what is now the Maryland Department of the Environment. There she handled a range of water quality issues, from drinking water to septic tanks.

Air quality

The bay gets a third of its biggest pollutant, nitrogen, from fallout of dirty air. Sources include power plants as far off as the Midwest and vehicles.

Ehrlich, who voted against tougher auto mileage and emissions standards as a state delegate and a congressman, says he's comfortable that President Bush's "Clear Skies" initiative, a proposal to modify the federal Clean Air Act, will improve the air.

But Maryland and at least eight other East Coast states have drafted a letter to the Bush Environmental Protection Agency listing 10 major problems with the proposal. They say the proposal won't do enough to reduce upwind pollution from power plants, would take decades to phase in and will effectively eliminate parts of the Clean Air Act that let states petition EPA to reduce pollution. It also would weaken recent EPA proposals to reduce power plant emissions of toxic mercury, found in fish throughout the bay watershed.

Townsend favors keeping the current Clean Air Act, and continuing a petition filed under it by Maryland to make EPA further reduce out-of-state power plant pollution.

Both candidates promise more mass transit to cut auto pollution and congestion. Both also would build more roads, with Ehrlich appearing the more aggressive on that.

He says new highways would clean the air by reducing the time cars sit idling in traffic. But decades of road building in the Baltimore-Washington area have resulted in added driving that has risen three times as fast as population, worsening pollution and congestion.

Next week: the candidates on Smart Growth and runoff; and Ehrlich's voting record.