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Chesapeake Bay cleanup: Have we become complacent? | COMMENTARY

There is scant sign of pollution in a satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay but results at ground level find otherwise. File. (Handout courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center/DailyPress.com).
There is scant sign of pollution in a satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay but results at ground level find otherwise. File. (Handout courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center/DailyPress.com). (Satellite view courtesy NASA Langley Research Center)

Several reports of recent days suggest that the decades-old effort to “save” the Chesapeake Bay has become stalled or worse. The first found continued high phosphorus and algae levels of Eastern Shore rivers. A corresponding study from the Environmental Integrity Project suggests a link to shore poultry growers, who are not properly disposing of manure, and to lax state oversight; just a tiny fraction of farmers (2%) end up paying fines for violating pollution control permits.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Program this past week acknowledged that recent years have gotten worse for Chesapeake water quality, with about two-thirds of its tidal waters now classified as “impaired.” And then there was the announcement that striped bass aren’t reproducing well with the annual “young of year” survey reported at below average for the third year in a row (3.2 compared to the long-term average of 11.4).

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There was a time when such a flood of unhappy news would have triggered a public outcry. Did we miss it? Perhaps Marylanders are more attuned to other pressing matters, from COVID-19 booster shots to the state of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. There’s a lot to worry about. And even the environmental community seems more focused these days on the existential threat posed by climate change, a circumstance surely reinforced when severe storms forced Maryland to deal with coastal flooding. It’s one thing to hear about “dead zones” of low dissolved oxygen that are killing submerged grasses so vital to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, it’s quite another to hear that the high tide may soon reach your second floor.

Granted, protecting the nation’s largest estuary is a complex business, and the average poultry farmer is a not some villainous mountebank dumping toxics off the local pier. Yet the manure their birds inevitably produce has to be disposed of properly and not simply spread on already-saturated fields to wash into local tributaries. The excess nutrients create algae blooms, which die and then suck precious oxygen out of the water. Someone has to be held accountable. And, frankly, it ought to be the large, deep-pocketed poultry producers that contract growers like Tyson Foods and Salisbury-based Perdue Farms. Such companies can surely truck away poultry litter just as they truck in chicks and feed to local chicken farms in the first place.

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Is there accountability? The EIP report suggests not, at least if measured by fines from the Maryland Department of the Environment. State officials contend the violations are mostly paperwork — farmers not properly filing records. But advocates say that’s part of the problem, that the agency rarely seeks to enforce anything other than paperwork violations. And they point to a troubling pattern of lax environmental enforcement during the years that Republican Larry Hogan has served as governor under a “pro-business” mantra. Is it really pro-business to neglect the health of one of Maryland’s most important economic assets? The decline of the seafood industry, the impairment of waters used for recreation and tourism, and the potential loss of value of waterfront property as the “waterfront” becomes less appealing are among the costly consequences.

Farmers are far from the only source of Chesapeake Bay pollution. They are, however, a significant and less well-regulated one. Heavier rains in recent years have surely played a role in worsening water quality because they bring more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the bay and its tributaries. Still, the more fundamental question is this: Do we have the political will to push for tougher pollution standards? The recent Goucher College Poll found Governor Hogan’s support to be high with most preferring “a Republican like Larry Hogan” to a theoretical progressive or even moderate Democrat as governor in the 2022 election. Clearly, the health of the Chesapeake Bay is not at the forefront of voters’ minds.

Maybe it’s simplistic, but it would be nice to see a resurgence of “Save the Bay” bumper stickers and other forms of pro-bay public advocacy that used to be found in such abundance, and perhaps for Adam Ortiz, the recently appointed head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3 office, to take an aggressive role in bay matters as well. The former director of Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection certainly knows the issues. Holding polluters accountable inevitably involves conflict. It doesn’t always make politicians popular or help them raise campaign donations. But we still believe saving the Chesapeake Bay, surely our region’s single most precious natural resource, is worth fighting for. How about you?

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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