Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner is poised to take on a symbolic job today: leadership of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
The EPA chief is expected to be elected to a one-year term as chairwoman of the bay program's executive council when it meets today in Reston, Va., to review progress in the 12-year-old cleanup campaign.
Ms. Browner would succeed Virginia Gov. George F. Allen, whose year at the helm of the multistate effort has been marked by clashes with the EPA over auto emission controls and pollution enforcement and complaints from opponents that the state has relaxed environmental protections to benefit industry.
Becky Norton Dunlop, Virginia's secretary of natural resources, said Mr. Allen had wanted to continue as chairman of the bay restoration effort but agreed to step aside after Ms. Browner and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge expressed interest in leading the executive council, which sets goals and broad policies.
"Virginians always have a little trepidation when you're turning things over to people on the other side of the Potomac River," Ms. Dunlop said. "But this is more of a partnership, so we're not losing any sleep over it."
Other members of the council are Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and Michael H. Weir of Essex, a Democratic delegate who is chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Mr. Weir occupies a rotating post representing the states' legislators.
An EPA official said yesterday that Ms. Browner plans to use her new position to publicize the bay restoration as an example of a successful, voluntary federal-state cooperation at a time when Congress is trying to slash the agency's budget and reduce its regulatory authority.
"We are beginning to see results, and that's the ultimate endorsement," said William Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay program office in Annapolis.
Although there have been no significant changes in nutrient pollution of the main bay since 1985, water quality has improved in several tributaries, including the Patuxent and Potomac rivers.
House and Senate negotiators have agreed to trim the EPA's overall budget for this year by 22.5 percent, or $1.7 billion. EPA officials say the threatened spending cuts already have prompted them to reduce enforcement activities. If approved, the budget bill would slow or cripple efforts to upgrade drinking water systems, reduce water pollution and clean up hazardous-waste dumps, they say.
The agency's $22 million budget for the Chesapeake Bay program has been spared by congressional cost-cutters. But reductions in the EPA's overall budget and eliminating the agency's authority to regulate wetlands would hurt the bay cleanup, Mr. Matuszeski said.
Ms. Browner's elevation was welcomed by environmentalists, who have criticized the Allen administration for its reliance on voluntary pollution reductions and apparent coziness with industry.
In one particularly controversial move, the governor accepted a $100,000 contribution during this fall's legislative election campaign from a company accused of water pollution violations.
"The Chesapeake Bay program has drifted away from a consistent and strong, unified regional strategy," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"If this trend were to continue, the program might disintegrate into a collection of symbolic but inadequate state and local activities."