Leadership faulted for slowed cleanup of Chesapeake Bay


The regional effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay appears to be stalled by a leadership caught up in internal bickering, distracted by economic woes and, some say, nearsighted in making plans for the future.

"We are becalmed right now. The wind is out of the sails," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, expressing the sentiments of a wide range of bay experts.

For nearly a decade, three states and the federal government have worked to bring the nation's largest estuary back to life after drops in fish populations and bay wildlife signaled the ecosystem was in distress.

But for the first time, some leaders and bay analysts are saying publicly and privately they are concerned that some of the major issues, such as controlling rampant development, are being addressed too slowly.

The bottom line, they say, is that the present course of the restoration won't bring back the shad, the oysters or the bay grasses.

"I think the result of this pause in moving forward is going to be in five to 10 years as the benefits of existing programs start to be overshadowed by the increase in population," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Some of the officials leading the charge -- the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission -- have not been as willing to fight the bay's most difficult political battles as leaders of the past.

Not only have the leaders not met for 19 months, they are now taking pot shots at one another.

"We couldn't get the governor of Virginia, or the mayor of Washington, who understandably had other things on her mind because she had just taken office, or the governor of Pennsylvania to agree to come [to a meeting]," one EPA official said.

A meeting has now been scheduled for Aug. 6, but no agenda has been made available to the public.

The office of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia said last week the event was on his calendar.

Aides to Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon of Washington said she has not decided whether to attend.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has publicly criticized Mr. Wilder for not giving the bay the attention it deserves.

In an interview several weeks ago with the Washington Post, Mr. Schaefer said, "It has not been a priority of his."

Mr. Wilder's aides countered that their boss defended Chesapeake Bay programs against budget cuts this year.

The failure to hold an annual meeting is significant, because 1991 was the year designated to review the restoration goals and redirect the cleanup if necessary.

Some of the high-level bureaucrats who manage operations of the bay program defend the effort. Levels of phosphorus, one of the bay's major pollutants, have dropped by 35 percent. Striped bass are more plentiful, as are underwater grasses -- the key to improving water quality. The region's largest sewage plants and industries are nearly all in compliance with pollution requirements.

"A good many things that were getting worse for so many years are no longer getting worse," said EPA Administrator William K. Reilly. "I think there is a much better sense of strategy and a better sense now of the remaining very hard decisions."

The achievements have piled up year after year: a landmark, multi-state agreement in 1983, a Maryland law to control growth along the bay's shorelines or "critical areas" in 1984, the first state phosphate ban in 1985, a second major agreement among the states in 1987, a new focus on toxic pollution in 1988, a regional report calling for growth controls in 1989.

But since then the pace has slowed.

The leadership seemed to reach its zenith in Norfolk in August 1987 when the executive council was in the midst of rewriting a blueprint for the cleanup. Environmentalists feared that the newly elected Governor Schaefer, not known as a green leader, might not be as resolute on the bay and that the others would not force the issues.

But the "do-it-now" Mr. Schaefer, the professorial Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia, and Lee Thomas, then the gently-push-behind-the-scenes EPA administrator, surprised everyone. They went beyond the recommendations of their staff and set an ambitious goal of reducing nutrient pollutants by 40 percent by the end of the century.

Mr. Baliles and Mr. Schaefer appeared before the press as old buddies, joking about taking fishing trips together.

There is no such camaraderie apparent now.

"We are not the big happy family we were in 1987," said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Mr. Schaefer. "Clearly the governor doesn't see the same level of cooperation out of Virginia that he had in the previous administration."

Mr. Schaefer, who environmentalists now view as the most committed and visionary of the bay leaders, would like to be remembered when he leaves office in three years as the governor who got the wheels of the bay cleanup in motion.

But he is having difficulty accomplishing his goals because of a ++ budget that has had to be sliced again and again this year and a legislature he doesn't get along with.

He failed during this past General Assembly session to get a package of legislation passed that would have created statewide controls on development and protections for farmland and forests.

One bay expert, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Schaefer hasn't seen the necessity of working with the legislature.

"Couple that with the fiscal problems, and it adds up to us taking small steps when we need to take giant leaps."

Beyond the leaders' sniping and their problems at home is an even more serious failing of leadership, according to Mr. Baker of the bay foundation, an environmental group based in Annapolis.

Mr. Baker worries that nobody in the bay cleanup effort is attacking the major problem threatening to engulf the billion-dollar campaign: 3 million more people in the watershed by the end of the decade.

More people will increase the number of cars, houses, schools, shopping centers and factories -- all sources of pollution.

Yet, Mr. Baker says, the bay restoration effort does not address the increased impact of more people. So if the current course continues, it will be impossible to have a net gain in water quality.

"I think people are only beginning to realize that because of population growth we have to take three steps forward to make one step of improvement," said Clay Jones, the assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group of legislators from the three bay states.

No state has grappled with the issue of land use.

Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania called state growth controls Neanderthal. A commission in Virginia is studying the idea. The Maryland legislature has put off the decision for two years. And the EPA, already stung by public criticism of its attempts to regulate wetlands, does not want to meddle in what is perceived as largely a state matter.

"Somebody is going to have to bite the bullet and say, 'Look, we are going to have to face this issue and maybe twist some arms,' " said David Brubaker, vice president of PenAgra Industries Association, a Pennsylvania agricultural business group involved in bay programs.

Besides controlling development, another step yet to be taken is drastically reducing pollution from farm land. Farmers still face no mandates to stop the flow of bay-choking nutrients from fertilizers and manure. A committee made up of bureaucrats, environmentalists and farmers working on the restoration effort released a report recently saying that voluntary efforts are not working. Scientists say nitrogen from farm fields, sewage and air pollution is on the rise.

Some say the bay cleanup is in a lull rather than a complete stall. "I think what you see is maybe a pause, maybe a rest for a minute," said Robert Perciasepe, Maryland's environment secretary.

War and recession have necessarily taken public and government attention away from the bay, Mr. Perciasepe said.

In addition, government bureaucrats are quietly going about the business of working out the details for meeting many of the broad goals set in 1987. And they are preparing to re-evaluate the program's progress next spring when more precise computer data will help direct the state efforts, he said.

"We are in the get-down-in-the-trenches-and-fight-it-out stage," said Keith J. Buttleman, administrator of the Virginia Council on the Environment.

But Mr. Winegrad, the Maryland legislator who describes himself as frustrated by the lack of momentum, says the public will not be satisfied with this kind of progress.

"People want to know when the shad, oysters and bay grasses are coming back. That is the question people want answered," he said. "We need to take giant steps forward." There should be a bold set of initiatives coming from a consensus."

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