Bay cleanup effort must tackle harmful chemicals

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Department of the Environment says Chesapeake Bay striped bass more than 28 inches long are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs - industrial chemicals that can damage children's nervous systems. Maryland fish advisories say children should not eat large rockfish that run in springtime, and no one should eat local rockfish more than twice a month. In fact, Maryland and Virginia have posted health warnings for 23 kinds of bay fish and shellfish.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found half the bay bottom is degraded by PCBs, mercury or pesticides. Two-thirds of its tidal rivers and streams are listed under the Clean Water Act as "partially or fully impaired" by toxic chemicals. Severn River catfish have tumors at four times the rate considered a sign of heavy contamination.

The Chesapeake Bay Program has pledged to achieve "a Chesapeake Bay free of toxics." Its staff developed a strong action plan that could meet that goal if governments followed through. But they have not. Out of $1.1 billion spent on bay restoration in 2007, less than one-half of 1 percent went to reduce toxic pollution.

Until recently, a toxics subcommittee led by a full-time coordinator carried out the bay program's toxics initiative. That committee was disbanded and the coordinator was reassigned, leaving no one to implement the plan. This dangerously complacent attitude toward known risks makes no sense.

The Chesapeake Bay Program was created in 1983 because of concern about nutrients from fertilizers and sewage, which choke the bay. Nutrients are the program's main focus, and they should be. But chemical contamination is more serious than anyone knew in 1983. The toxics subcommittee identified more than a dozen chemicals that are widely used, have serious potential effects and accumulate in the bodies of bay creatures.

New detection methods have found toxic pollutants throughout the bay. Researchers recently found the herbicide atrazine, the country's most common farm chemical, in 100 percent of bay water samples. It can cause deformities in frogs, and is linked to health problems at all levels of the food chain.

After 25 years, the bay program is barely halfway to its nutrient reduction goals. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency demanding a cleanup of nutrient pollution. But the Clean Water Act requires the states to work toward eliminating all pollutants that impair our troubled waters, including toxic chemicals.

The loss of a healthy ecosystem harms us all. That's why the Maryland Pesticide Network hopes President-elect Barack Obama will follow through on commitments to cleanse the Chesapeake Bay of harmful chemical pollution. At a minimum, the new administrator of the EPA should make sure the toxics initiative is properly staffed. Mr. Obama should work with Congress to ensure that some federal money for Chesapeake Bay restoration is targeted at toxic chemicals remediation. Full enforcement of the Clean Water Act can and should become a key element of his environmental legacy.

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