WASHINGTON - Calling the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure, lawmakers in Washington expressed dismay yesterday that 2010 cleanup goals for the country's largest estuary would not be met.
"We have been paddling backwards," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a District of Columbia Democrat. "One can only express profound disappointment that whatever plans we have, have benefited the bay so little."
Representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with bay advocates, the University of Maryland and others, told a House subcommittee about the slow progress toward goals set by the federal government and bay watershed states, including Maryland. The hearing, before the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee, was one of a series on "Protecting and Restoring America's Great Waters."
The Chesapeake Bay Program, which monitors the health of the bay on behalf of the state and federal governments, reported that about 12 percent of the bay had acceptable water quality in 2007, that bay grasses cover just one-third of the restoration goal and that the blue crab population remained more than one-fifth below the interim target.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, asked the EPA's assistant administrator for water if the agency needed greater authority to protect the bay. The official, Benjamin H. Grumbles, said it did not.
"Our current approach is we have ample regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act," Grumbles said. "From our position, as a general matter, government that's most closely to those being governed works most effectively."
The EPA official said the agency is concerned about a federal appeals court ruling this month that overturned a rule that would have required deep cuts in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants in the eastern United States.
"The bay jurisdictions were relying on the [Clean Air Interstate Rule] to significantly reduce nitrogen emissions by 2010," he said in written testimony, and added to the panel: "We are concerned about the loss of an important regulatory tool."
Rep. Donna Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, asked about the impact of a gag order the EPA reportedly imposed on its employees, advising them not to speak with government investigators. Wade T. Najjum of the EPA inspector general's office and Anu K. Mittal of the congressional Government Accountability Office said the law gives them access to all government personnel and records. When a manager has attempted to stifle the flow of information, Najjum said, inspectors have reminded those concerned of their legal obligation to respond.
Grumbles, the top EPA official at the hearing, said he has seen "a concerted effort to provide as much access as possible and to be as responsive as possible" to both investigative agencies.
Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat, spoke in favor of expanding the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in the bay cleanup effort. He said the corps should be authorized to conduct storm-water management projects in the bay watershed as a pilot program.