Fed up with pollution that is helping to destroy the livelihood of its members, the Maryland Watermen's Association is surveying support for a possible class action lawsuit to demand faster cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
Larry Simns, president of the 6,000-member group that represents commercial fishermen, said last night that his organization has not concluded whether it would file suit or whom it might sue.
But Simns, a 66-year-old waterman from Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore, said the association sent letters to its members last week asking their opinions about legal action. He said he has received many phone calls since then supporting the idea.
"Watermen aren't normally much on suing, so this is a drastic step for us," said Simns. "But it's going to take drastic measures, because we aren't getting any results as it is. Nothing's happening to stop sewage spills in the bay. Everybody's just passing the buck."
Richard Batiuk, associate director for science in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, said he'd heard about the possible lawsuit, but doesn't think it would be productive.
"I'm not sure a lawsuit would make much of a difference," Batiuk said. "Cleaning up the bay is a matter of changing people's behavior, and getting them to think differently about the fertilizer they use and how they conduct their business."
Batiuk said it doesn't make sense to point fingers at any one party for the Chesapeake Bay's pollution, and that it's the responsibility of all 16 million people in the bay watershed.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is contemplating a lawsuit against the EPA to force it to take more aggressive action.
The Annapolis-based nonprofit organization filed a petition with the EPA in December demanding an action plan to reduce nutrient runoff and other pollution, and it could file a notice of intent to sue in weeks or months, said Theresa Pierno, a vice president of the foundation.
Pierno said last night that she understands the anger watermen must feel as their waterways suffer. She added, however, that she doesn't know if her organization would join a watermen's lawsuit.
"I think it's a clear signal, the sense of frustration the watermen must feel, and the pollution they've had to endure," Pierno said. "They are faulting the government for not protecting the bay."
The foundation is holding a news conference this morning at its Annapolis headquarters to outline proposals to reduce the runoff of farm and poultry industry manure and nitrogen fertilizer into the bay.
Last week, the foundation filed lawsuits in Virginia to try to force reductions in pollutants flowing from two waste treatment plants on its Eastern Shore.
One group that is off the watermen's list of potential defendants is farmers, Simns said.
Although scientists frequently point to manure from farms as a key component in Chesapeake Bay pollution, Simns said that farmers shouldn't be targeted because they are working people who have made an effort to limit runoff.
Simns mentioned sewage treatment plants, developers, industry and others as more at fault.
"We're not going after the farmers. The farmers are in the same boat we're in," Simns said.