Don't Trump the Chesapeake Bay's progress

Op-ed: Nobody voted for a dead Chesapeake Bay when they voted to "Make America Great Again."

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is critical not only to the geographical and cultural heart of Maryland but also to the idea of environmental restoration around the world. If the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth won't restore a waterway that shines on the doorstep of its own capital, what chance do other waters have?

The first quarter century of the bay cleanup effort, from the 1980s to 2010, produced no improvement to the overall health of the nation's largest estuary, despite billions of dollars spent, according to federal and state water quality monitoring. The reason for this failure was that the cleanup agreements signed in 1983, 1987 and 2000 by the regional states and Washington D.C. were voluntary and emphasized state leadership, with no strong role for the federal government.

All that changed in 2010 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and worked with the states to create a new system of accountability, called the bay "pollution diet" or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Under this system, EPA assumed a leadership position (long required by the federal Clean Water Act) and for the first time imposed firm pollution limits for the states and threatened federal penalties for noncompliance.

The very next year, the bay started showing tentative but encouraging signs of improvement. The overall health of the Chesapeake jumped from a score of 38 out of 100 in 2011 to 53 in 2015, as measured by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's annual report card. Nitrogen pollution and algae blooms declined, dissolved oxygen levels rose, underwater grasses spread, water clarity improved, and populations of bottom-dwelling creatures increased.

Granted, some of this improvement may have been due simply to favorable weather. And some of the rise was probably driven by policies put in place years earlier (including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2004 "flush tax" to upgrade sewage treatment plants) that required time to produce results. But it would be irrational to dismiss as a coincidence the timing of the bay's resurgence and the leadership role that EPA assumed in 2010.

President Donald Trump, however, is just that kind of crazy. All the recent improvements in the bay's health are now on the chopping block because Mr. Trump has reportedly proposed to slash spending on the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program by 93 percent (from $73 million to a reported $5 million). This is just part of $2 billion in proposed agency-wide cuts to increase U.S. military spending (already more than the next seven largest nations combined) that could mean as many as 3,000 layoffs at EPA and the elimination of several environmental programs nationally, including for beach water quality testing and cleanup of the San Francisco Bay. Mr. Trump also reportedly wants more than 90 percent cuts in environmental education, the study of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, radon gas testing, and Great Lakes and Puget Sound cleanup.

Even worse was his appointment of Scott Pruitt, an anti-regulatory zealot, as EPA administrator. As Oklahoma's attorney general, Mr. Pruitt joined farm lobbyists and real-estate developers in a legal challenge to the EPA-led bay cleanup plan, claiming it was part of a pattern of overreach by President Barack Obama's EPA. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Pruitt tried to suggest he now supports the bay cleanup, but he undercut that message by also arguing that EPA's role in the cleanup should just be "informational." In general, both Messrs. Pruitt and Trump have positioned themselves as champions of "state's rights," claiming that EPA should back off and let states solve their own problems.

The Chesapeake's biggest problem, however, is that pollution flows across state lines. Maryland is powerless to stop Pennsylvania's dumping on its downstream neighbor, even though Pennsylvania is responsible for twice as much pollution and has little political incentive to clean up on its own.

Through his proposal for draconian cuts, Mr. Trump appears to want to go back in time before EPA was created in 1970 and polluters had more power and liberty. But we saw what that America was like, with waterways reeking with raw sewage and skies smeared with smog. Nobody voted for a dead Chesapeake Bay when they voted to "Make America Great Again."

Tom Pelton is director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, host of "The Environment in Focus" public radio program on WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, and a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun (1997-2008). His email is tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org.

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