The Washington Post June 17, 2003 Tuesday

Copyright 2003 The Washington Post

The Washington Post

June 17, 2003 Tuesday
Final Edition

LENGTH: 831 words
HEADLINE: Environmental Activists Issue New Call to Save Bay; Event Feting Mathias Includes Push for New Oversight Plan
BYLINE: Anita Huslin, Washington Post Staff Writer

The nation's largest regional environmental advocacy group today called for new regulatory oversight of the Chesapeake Bay's restoration, with firm deadlines and penalties if the state and federal governments do not meet their commitments.

"There simply must be a binding, legal framework if the agreed-upon goals are to be met," William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said at a news conference honoring a retired U.S. senator considered the father of the modern movement. "The momentum to save the bay has been slowed, and it must be restarted."

Baker said the effort is failing because of a lack of political leadership and willingness by federal, state and local governments in the region to live up to their promises -- and to acknowledge that the current approach is inadequate.

More than 30 years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) suggested that an interstate compact commission, like the one now governing use of the Potomac River, be established to oversee the anti-pollution efforts.

Mathias, at 81 the elder statesman for the bay, said he still believes the project should be cooperative, "not antagonistic," and accountable as well.

"We may in fact have done some of the easier things . . . and now we have to face some of the more difficult ones," Mathias said. "There's tough times ahead."

Federal participants in the bay cleanup have produced voluminous studies identifying the bay's problems, and a computer model to monitor them, but the federal government has not offered enough cash to effect real change.

Since 1983, Maryland and Virginia have signed three agreements to restore the bay. In recent years, Pennsylvania and the District joined the effort. But none has produced the dollars or the programs to effectively regulate the chief causes of pollution in the bay: sewage treatment plants, agricultural waste and suburban sprawl.

The two senior U.S. senators from Maryland and Virginia today promised to help persuade the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release funds that Congress authorized for a pilot program for the Chesapeake region. Under the program, farmers would agree to apply only the amount of fertilizer their crops need and prevent the flow of excess nutrients into waterways. The government would compensate them if they ended up with crops that were smaller than expected.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which includes state legislators from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said more effort needs to be focused on opening new funding sources for the bay from the federal farm and transportation bills.

"The bay is big, the challenge is big and the amount of money we're going to need is big," Swanson said after a tribute to Mathias on Kent Island, Md., four miles east of Annapolis. "You need more than leadership. It's the budgets you need."

To restore the bay by the end of this decade, as the states have pledged, would cost $ 20 billion to improve sewage treatment, plant buffers along waterways and help farmers control runoff, according to the commission. Only $ 5.9 billion from the state and federal governments has been earmarked.

If it was at all awkward for Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) to be sitting on the dock of Harris Crab & Seafood listening to speakers blame a lack of political will for the lagging Chesapeake Bay restoration, neither gave any sign.

Warner, wearing a Navy cap with the insignia of the USS Virginia, a nuclear attack submarine, called the bay "a national treasure . . . deserving of the taxpayer funds of all 50 states," and Sarbanes acknowledged that there should be "a sense of urgency because the stresses are increasing."

But neither senator committed to a tougher regulatory program. Currently, an alphabet soup of dozens of state and federal government and research agencies work together on the bay cleanup plan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program provides oversight and coordination and has made consensus a hallmark of the campaign.

Rebecca Hanmer, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, said she does not believe that a regulatory oversight body needs to be created to make the bay states live up to their promises.

"After 40 years in federal government, I no longer believe that reorganizing solves any problems," Hanmer said.

After spending the day touring an oyster reef project in Virginia and then flying by helicopter to Kent Island, the senators were joined by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) at the dais to honor Mathias.

Though the event was billed as a tribute to Mathias, environmentalists, the local elected officials and others gathered hoped that the moment would translate into more than just another photo opportunity.

"We need two things: political will and the money to get the job done," said former EPA administrator Russell Train. "But it's probably going to be a job we'll live with forever."