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Changes urged in cleanup of bay

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said yesterday that the management system for cleaning up the bay has failed and needs to be replaced with a new agency given the unprecedented authority to raise revenue, enforce land-use policies and take responsibility for the bay's restoration.

In a stinging assessment of bay cleanup efforts, William C. Baker, president and chief executive officer of the foundation, said that too much runoff is flowing into the bay from farms, residential developments and outdated sewer plants.

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Restoration strategies -- based on decades of studies -- are meaningless because government officials have failed to pursue policies that would ensure the $19 billion cleanup, Baker said.

"The point is that what we're doing now doesn't work," he said. "We are struck by the deafening silence of a leadership vacuum."

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He declined to detail specific recommendations for the new agency's powers, but said they should be spelled out in a compact forged by the governors of the three states that oversee the bay watershed and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who meet regularly each fall to discuss bay issues.

Baker was joined at a news conference by former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a Maryland Republican credited with leading bay restoration efforts 30 years ago in Congress. Mathias said the major difference between now and when work on the Chesapeake began is that the source of the bay's ills are now understood.

"We've found what needs to be done," he said. "The only question is 'How are we going to do it?'"

Cleanup goals are voluntarily set by the six states in the bay watershed, along with the District of Columbia and the EPA. The effort is overseen by an executive council, made up of the governors of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, the Washington mayor, the EPA administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group appointed by legislators from states in the watershed.

But Baker said the overall effort, known as the Chesapeake Bay Program, lacks authority to adopt legally binding regulations or compel compliance with runoff or land-use regulations.

A new agency is a necessity because responsibility for the cleanup is shared by the state and federal agencies -- and none can be held accountable for the lack of progress, he said.

"There's no accountability as to why things aren't getting done," Baker said. "The government structure is simply not working."

He noted as an example recent EPA reports that show that the "dead zone" in the bay -- areas in which oxygen levels are so low that they can't support aquatic life -- rose early last month to an all-time high of 40 percent of the bay's volume. The summer average is about 24 percent, EPA officials say.

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"This summer has been as bad as any I've see in my 25 years with the program," Baker told reporters. "Some 20 years of an existing structure simply has not worked."

Baker organized the Washington news conference in part to promote the publication of Turning the Tide, Saving the Chesapeake Bay, a book written by Sun columnist Tom Horton. It is a revised and expanded edition of a 1991 book.

Baker said that Horton's book -- funded by the foundation and a grant from the Abell Foundation -- helped convince him that there has been little progress in improving the bay's health since restoration efforts began in 1982. The cleanup effort, he said, is "very close to becoming a model of failure, not success."

The new agency could be an authority or commission, Baker said, while declining to specify how it should operate. When pressed, he offered as an example the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which is authorized by Maryland and Virginia to regulate fishing and dredging for shellfish in the Potomac.

Reaction to Baker's proposal was mixed.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would not rule out the creation of a regulatory agency, but prefers "a more cooperative approach where all the parties are brought together," said spokesman Greg Massoni.

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Rebecca Hanmer, head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, said there has been "a great deal of progress" in curbing runoff from farms, suburban sprawl and wastes from outdated sewage plants.

Hanmer said 91 of the 300 sewage treatment plants in the watershed have been improved in recent years. The nitrogen being dumped in the bay also has been reduced, from 337 million pounds a year in 1985 to 275 million pounds in December 2001. The goal is to reduce nitrogen runoff to 175 million pounds by 2010.

"I'm not trying to say that everyone is doing everything that needs to be done, but I'm not sure that a regulatory authority from a compact commission would make us go any faster," she said.

She said the impact of a new agency would depend on how it is set up and the amount of authority granted by the states' governors and legislators.

"The devil lies in the details, as they say," Hanmer said.


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