Bay restoration stalling, experts say


Twenty years after state and federal officials pledged to revive the troubled Chesapeake Bay, federal support for the nationally acclaimed restoration effort is eroding, environmentalists and bay managers say.

The bay restoration has also lost momentum in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the principal states of the Chesapeake watershed. Pollution, scientists say, must be reduced twice as much by 2010 as it was during the past two decades to meet restoration goals.

The states' voluntary involvement makes strong oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency a necessity, advocates say.

"But in the past two years, I feel EPA has become more a facilitator, playing defense when we need great leadership," says J. Charles Fox, who recently resigned as Maryland's natural resources secretary to work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"If things don't get moving a lot faster than they are now, the bay will be worse in 10 years instead of better," says William Matuszeski, who headed the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program for 10 years until retiring in 2001.

Matuszeski's comment was directed at the Bay Program's failure in October to meet a deadline for cuts in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

But the pullback of federal support for the bay appears much broader. In the past year or so, critics say, the Bush administration and Congress have threatened the restoration in a number of ways. They have:

Proposed giving the auto and electric utility industries more time to reduce air pollution from vehicles and power plants, which ultimately falls on the bay.

Weakened Clinton administration proposals to regulate pollution from farm manure.

Signaled that they will soften guidelines on which the state will base new water-quality standards.

Declined to regulate carbon dioxide, which is linked to a sea level rise that threatens bay wetlands.

Cut proposed spending for sewage treatment.

James Connaughton, a Baltimore native who heads President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, says the administration wants to rely less on traditional federal regulation and more on market- and incentive-based pollution reduction.

"We're looking at a broader array of tools to get programs that work, that [polluters] will adopt rather than litigate," he says. "We think we have a winning combination that will dramatically transform places like Chesapeake Bay."

Connaughton noted that federal spending for agricultural conservation around the bay is increasing and that the Bush administration cracked down on air pollution from large diesel trucks.

Even so, bay advocates such as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening say they're discouraged by the federal retreat.

"A stronger federal role is essential to restoring the bay," Glendening said recently.

Nowhere is the precarious nature of the Chesapeake restoration clearer than on the Patuxent River, which meanders 110 miles through the heart of Maryland to the bay. Costly sewage treatment upgrades have brought back 208 acres of underwater grasses - critical habitat for fish and waterfowl.

But farther downstream, the river remains murky and devoid of the grasses that once covered an additional 1,700 acres.

"Fish, crabs, ducks - the whole river was loaded, and when we lost our grasses in the 1970s, we lost it all," says Hezekiah Elliott, 76, an old-time waterman who lives on Broomes Island in Calvert County.

While parts of a few tributaries such as the Patuxent are starting to see improvements, up to half of the bay's waters remain inhospitable to fish in summertime - robbed of life-giving oxygen by pollution.

Fallout from air pollution - largely regulated by the federal government - accounts for nearly a third of the 290 million tons of nitrogen entering the Chesapeake, growing algae, smothering underwater grasses and depleting oxygen.

Along with power plants, the biggest sources of airborne nitrogen are motor vehicles. Vehicles have regressed in fuel efficiency since 1988, as Americans buy more pickups and SUVs, which burn more fuel and emit up to 10 times more nitrogen per gallon than the cleanest automobiles.

Last year, under pressure from automakers and labor unions, the U.S. Senate rejected significant improvements in mileage standards. The bay watershed senators from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania voted 5-1 against mandating cleaner, higher-mileage vehicles.

Nitrogen reaching the bay from power plants has been reduced significantly in the past decade - progress made through the federal Clean Air Act. But the reductions were largely offset by increases from vehicles.

Changes under Bush

Although progress with power plants will continue, changes proposed by the Bush administration threaten to slow the pace of improvement, critics say.

The EPA has proposed easing long-standing rules requiring older, dirtier coal-fired plants - many of them affecting the bay - to add modern air-quality controls when they upgrade generating equipment.

"Before the 2000 elections, we were expecting significantly greater reductions in nitrogen oxides from those plants than we are planning on now," said Russ Dickerson, an air pollution chemist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The issue could be rendered moot if Congress passes Bush's sweeping Clear Skies proposal, which would place a permanent cap on emissions from utilities for the first time.

Jeff Holmstead, the EPA's air-quality chief, says it would reduce nitrogen entering the bay by 10 million pounds a year by 2020.

But that is less than 10 percent of the total pollution cuts needed, according to experts. Critics say Clear Skies would do too little too slowly.

"It will add very little to achieving our air-quality goals by the end of this decade," says Bruce Carhart, executive director of the Ozone Transport Commission, which coordinates smog reduction from Washington to Maine.

Another major source of bay pollution - largely resistant to cleanup - is the nitrogen and phosphorus from farm manure that washes into the bay by the tens of millions of pounds a year. The EPA under Bush is pushing weaker regulations than the Clinton administration proposed, critics say.

New EPA rules require farmers to produce plans for curbing manure runoff, but do not require reductions, says Dan Whittle, attorney for Environmental Defense, a national group.

Tracy Mehan, the EPA's assistant administrator for water quality, says the new rules "energize" efforts to clean up agriculture. But "to achieve the cutting-edge goals [for restoring] Chesapeake Bay, that's going to be beyond many of our national standards," he says.

While Maryland and Virginia have their own rules to limit manure pollution, Pennsylvania's are considered weak by bay cleanup experts, and the state is the bay's biggest source of farm pollution.

"If other states take advantage of weaker federal regulations, it's a potential economic hit for our agriculture," said Robert Summers, chief of water quality for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Another concern is a new set of federal water-quality criteria that will form the backbone of the next generation of state cleanup regulations. The EPA is required to set overall pollution limits that cannot be exceeded if rivers and bays are to remain healthy. Those limits would apply to sources ignored by current water-quality regulations, including many farms and even urban streets.

The rules are being written, and Mehan would say only that "we anticipate a robust rule that will in no way abdicate EPA's responsibilities." But critics say the EPA has signaled its intent to give states wide latitude in enforcement.

"I'm worried that by the time the EPA gets around to setting new standards, we'll have such weakened federal criteria it will be hard to make them work," said Thomas Simpson, a University of Maryland agricultural scientist who advises the Bay Program.

Recent federal actions narrowing the protection of wetlands won't immediately affect the bay states, which have their own laws, says Karl Hershner, a Virginia wetlands scientist. But "any erosion of the federal laws can eventually weaken state resolve," he cautions.

A more long-term threat comes from the Bush administration's refusal to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2), a major contributor to global warming. A warmer climate causes sea level to rise, which could cost the bay tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in coming decades, scientists say.

"I think the vast majority of marsh loss occurring in the bay is related to CO2," says J. Court Stevenson, a wetlands expert at the University of Maryland.

Money, leadership

How to pay for the Chesapeake's restoration is another issue with federal implications. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing the three bay states' legislatures, foresees a $13 billion shortfall in spending by government at all levels through 2010 and has called for a tripling of annual federal spending - an increase of more than $3 billion.

But with federal surpluses gone, war with Iraq looming and more tax cuts proposed by Bush, "it's very hard to see where the dollars are going to come from to match bay needs," says Charles Stec, an aide to Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Although Bush's proposed budget this year retains $20.8 million for the EPA Bay Program Office, it would cut sewage treatment funding for the three bay states from $113 million to $71 million.

The overarching question in the continuing restoration of the bay is who will lead it. None of the three bay-state governors is likely to make the environment a priority. While Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has promised major sewage treatment improvements, he said during his campaign that he was comfortable with Bush administration policies on air and water quality.

"It underscores the absolute importance of EPA leadership," says former DNR Secretary Fox, who served in the federal agency under Clinton.

Bay restoration already is floundering, critics say. They point to the bay states' inability to initiate larger pollution cuts last year. While Maryland officials pressed for action, the EPA - the state's usual ally - sided with Virginia and Pennsylvania, which wanted more time to study the issue.

"I would like to have seen us move ahead," says Rebecca Hanmer, who took over as head of the EPA's Bay Program last year. But she says she was unable to persuade the other states to agree.

Matuszeski, now retired, says the states should not let progress stall while waiting for more federal assistance, critical though it might be.

"We just can't afford more years of stalling," he says. "You can't keep putting three times as much nitrogen in the bay as it can handle year after year after year."

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