Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Facing Harsh Fiscal Reality

By J.R. Pegg

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, January 20, 2003 (ENS) - Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich says time is running out to save the Chesapeake Bay, but his state needs the federal government to fund its restoration and protection.

"Time is of the essence and this has got to get done in the next five years," Ehrlich said. "The magnitude of the problem far outstrips the state's ability to pay for it."

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Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
The bay watershed encompasses some 64,000 square miles. It includes parts of six states - New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia and all of the District of Columbia.

The health of the Chesapeake Bay, which is endangered by agricultural runoff, industrial pollution and untreated municipal wastewater, is an issue few Maryland politicians can afford to ignore. The nation's largest estuary, Chesapeake Bay is one of America's most famous bodies of water, and Ehrlich, a Republican, repeatedly pledged his support for cleanup efforts during his election campaign.

But Maryland faces the harsh fiscal reality of a $1.8 billion budget deficit, Ehrlich said, and the federal role in the Bay's cleanup has to be "dominant."

Ehrlich spoke today in Annapolis at the 9th Annual Maryland Environmental Legislative Summit, which was sponsored by The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a network of Maryland conservation organizations. Many of these organizations actively worked against Ehrlich's election and worry that the state's first Republican governor since 1966 will be lax in protecting the Bay.

"The governor sounded good today but the devil is in the details," said Maggie McIntosh, a Democratic delegate and chair of the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee. "We will have to see. I am nervous about this new administration."

Ehrlich warned environmentalists that they might not always be pleased with his administration, but they must be realistic in considering the concerns of industry and agriculture.

"It can not be a zero sum game," he said. "The bay cuts across ideology, geography and party lines."

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Chesapeake Bay (Satellite image courtesy NASA)
The scope of environmental problems facing the Chesapeake Bay is daunting, according a new report prepared by the University of Maryland's School of Law.

"After years of dialogue and billions in expenditures, the bay is no healthier than it was 10 years ago," the report finds. "Only 36.5 percent of estuarine waters, 42.5 percent of lakes and ponds, and 61.7 percent of non-tidal rivers and streams in Maryland fully support their designated uses as sources of potable water, food or recreation."

Finding federal money for the bay's cleanup has proven a difficult task. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, along with the mayor of Washington, DC signed onto a detailed, 10 year plan to clean up the bay. But the agreement provided no funds for cleanup, and funding for protection efforts have been spotty. Estimates for the efforts needed to meet the plan's goals run to some $20 billion.

"Maryland needs an additional $3 billion over the next eight years to do its part to clean up the bay," said Maryland State Senator Paula Hollinger, who chairs the state Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "This is a major problem."

Governor Ehrlich said today that he intends to use his contacts on Capital Hill to revive legislation that would help Maryland pay for upgrades to sewage treatment plants. Last year, when he was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ehrlich was unsuccessful in his efforts to pass such a bill, which would have given the state $660 million for upgrades.

Maryland has environmental concerns beyond the bay. The state's air quality is among the worst in the nation, and Maryland is at risk of losing millions of dollars of federal funds for non-compliance, according to the report. Baltimore is ranked as the fifth worst ozone nonattainment area in the country.

These air and water quality problems are worsened, environmentalists say, because the state does not have the staff or resources needed to monitor or enforce environmental protections.

The state has only 20 inspectors who are responsible for monitoring some 10,000 facilities for air pollution. There are only 44 inspectors on staff to monitor some 700 sources of water pollution.

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Clam dredging, traditional work of the Chesapeake waterman, may yield clams that have ingested pollutants. (Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)
Some 60 percent of the state's needed water inspections are not done because of lack of staff and funding, according to Denise Stranko, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Maryland staff attorney.

With the combination of the budget cuts and the Bush administration's intent to ease enforcement of many environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Act, some Maryland environmentalists believe it is time to play defense.

"What is going on in Washington should give pause to us all," said Hollinger. "The truth of the matter is that we will wind up with a lot of cuts to programs. We need to try and limit the impact of these cuts to the environment."

"The government can't do it all," she warned. "We've got to figure out other ways to get the public involved to preserve and maintain the environment. Now is not the time for those of us who are environmentalists to sit back and wait for things to happen to us."

With the size of the budget deficit, Ehrlich said, he has little ability to increase funding for state environmental programs. Last week he proposed a $22.8 billion budget that bridges this deficit without raising taxes or taking money from the state's reserve fund. The budget is built on raising some $400 million from slot machines, although this must be approved by a General Assembly wary of the concept.

Ehrlich's proposed budget does hold funding levels largely intact for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But environmentalists believe these agencies are both underfunded by as much as 50 percent.

Protecting Maryland's environment and cleaning up the bay "will take dollars and they are tight," said CBF Maryland executive director Theresa Pierno. "But when aren't they? We need to make this a priority."

Maryland only spends some 1.5 percent of its total state budget on environmental programs, she said, and this is not enough.

As part of his budget, Ehrlich has called for elimination of vacant job positions, which number 57 at the MDE and 82 at the DNR. These jobs have been vacant because of the state's hiring freeze, but environmentalists argue that these positions are needed to fully implement the state's environmental regulations.

Enforcement of water pollution is undermined by low fines, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which is calling on Governor Ehrlich to increase penalties for water polluters. These civil and criminal penalties have not been increased for some 30 years, and the combination of low fines and limited enforcement offers little incentive to reduce pollution.

Ehrlich has not yet offered his nominations for secretaries at the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources. He has decided against merging the two departments this year, something that had drawn immediate criticism from some Maryland environmentalists.

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A storm is brewing on the lower Patuxent River which flows into Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)
Maryland environmentalists voiced concern about the future of two initiatives launched by Ehrlich's two term predecessor, Governor Parris Glendening. Environmentalists believe the Smart Growth program and Program Open Space (POS) both face possible budget cuts. The Smart Growth program helps control urban sprawl; Program Open Space takes funds from home sales to fund land preservation efforts. These programs work, environmentalists say, and are worth preserving.

"Maryland saved more land than it developed last year," said Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Program Open Space is a tempting pot of money for the state to raid. It is funded by the state's Real Estate Transfer Tax, which annually generates some $100 million. But since its inception in 1969, more than $600 million earmarked for POS has been diverted to other purposes, according to Pierno of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Cutting environmental funding is bad for citizens, communities and the economy," Brown added. "It is clear the Maryland public wants the state to look elsewhere for budget cuts."

For more information on the Chesapeake Bay, see: http://www.cbf.org

For more information on Maryland's state budget, see: http://www.dbm.state.md.us/html/fy2004budgethighlights.html

For a copy of the University of Maryland School of Law's report, "Keeping Pace: An Evaluation of Maryland's Most Important Environmental Problems and What We Can Do to Solve Them," see: http://www.law.umaryland.edu/environment/