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Obama Executive Order Opens Window of Opportunity to Save Chesapeake Bay

After 25 years of watered-down policies, proposed law would hold states accountable for polluting the Bay

EPA collected 19,000 postcards petitioning the government for tougher laws to restore the Chesapeake Bay
EPA collected 19,000 postcards petitioning the government for tougher laws to restore the Chesapeake Bay

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Rosanne Skirble

On a warm evening in August, St. Philips Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, opened its doors to a crowd of angry citizens. They were there to talk about the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Community activist Vernice Miller-Travis raises concerns over development issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed at a crowded town hall meeting in Annapolis, Maryland
Community activist Vernice Miller-Travis raises concerns over development issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed at a crowded town hall meeting in Annapolis, Maryland

Among them was Vernice Miller-Travis, an official with the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, who was frustrated by local zoning decisions that promote development. "We are not all on the same page, we are not about to get on the same page until we grapple with issue," she says.

Patchwork of laws have merely slowed Bay's decline

Miller-Travis directs her remarks to Chuck Fox, a senior Environmental Protection Agency advisor, who says getting everyone with a stake in the Bay's future to agree may require tougher regulations. "Only 40 percent of all sources of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay are actually regulated by the federal or state government. I don't think we get to a clean Bay if that number stays at only 40 percent," Fox says.

Outside his office in Annapolis, Environmental Protection Agency official Chuck Fox accepts 19,000 postcard petitions from citizens who call for stronger federal action in Bay restoration
Outside his office in Annapolis, Environmental Protection Agency official Chuck Fox accepts 19,000 postcard petitions from citizens who call for stronger federal action in Bay restoration

A few weeks later, outside the Chesapeake Bay Program
office in Annapolis, Fox is handed 19,000 postcards from citizens demanding strong federal action.  The top government advisor on the Chesapeake Bay, who is a former activist, understands the problems. "It is a sad state that the Chesapeake Bay today is not a whole lot better than it was 25 years ago and that is unacceptable and that has to change."

Restoration has been coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Program  a federal-state partnership established in 1983; its recovery efforts thwarted by a population boom, an uneven patchwork of voluntary measures and pollution regulations and lax enforcement of rules.

Dissention within activist ranks stalls progress

In his book Fight for the Bay, U.S. Naval Academy political scientist Howard Ernst says failed policies, "have allowed pollution to go on unabated in a way that the Bay can't handle.  Whether it's agriculture, whether it's steel mills, whether it's air pollution, if you leave these industries to themselves, [it is in their own] economic best interests to dispose of their waste in public spaces like the Bay."

In Fight for the Bay U.S. Naval Academy political scientist Howard Ernst argues that an environmental awakening is needed to save the Chesapeake Bay
In Fight for the Bay U.S. Naval Academy political scientist Howard Ernst argues that an environmental awakening is needed to save the Chesapeake Bay

Ernst argues those policies stem from two conflicted environmental camps that split loyalties among Chesapeake activists. On one side, are the so-called 'dark greens,' those who see environmental protection as a basic human right. "That you have a right to clean air, clean water and vibrant natural resources in your public spaces, and people that violate that right have to be stopped. You pass a law, you enforce it, and you make the polluters pay for cleaning up their mess," Ernst explains. 

On the other side, are the 'light greens,' who believe, Ernst says, "that with really good science and with a consensus based approach you can overcome this contentious politics of the 'dark greens' and people will voluntarily do the things that are necessary to restore the Bay."

Ernst contends that Bay restoration has largely been a 'light green' effort with what he calls "watered down, feel-good policies that slow the decline of the Bay, but never seem capable of actually reversing the downward trend."  And now after 25 years, he says, "we can say with a fair degree of certainty that asking nicely and showing science is not enough to change people's behavior."

New hard-line regulations could hold states accountable

Howard Ernst is guardedly optimistic that with a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in Congress and with governors supporting Bay restoration, that Bay politics of the last 25 years can be reversed
Howard Ernst is guardedly optimistic that with a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in Congress and with governors supporting Bay restoration, that Bay politics of the last 25 years can be reversed

Ernst says restoration requires laws, regulations and enforcement policies, a renewed 'dark green' approach.  Lisa P. Jackson, administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says the presidential executive order to restore the Bay issued in May could be a game changer.  A response to the executive order released in September would hold states accountable for the pollution they create.

Jackson says EPA could withhold federal funding or stop permits on new projects should states fail to meet pollution reduction targets. "I believe [in] what the President wanted when he issued the executive order. He called for bold, dramatic action. If we respond with anything less than I think that skepticism is warranted," she says.

The plan will be issued in 2010 after a period of public review.  At the same time Chesapeake Bay legislation is making its way through the U.S. Congress.  The new law would give the federal government more regulatory enforcement power, initiate a pollution trading system and provide more than 1.5 billion dollars in grants for water management projects. Jackson says there is, "reason to be optimistic, hopeful that we'll see a different result from this effort."

But advocates fear that that the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections will put into office lawmakers opposed to strong federal regulations and enforcement and slow progress on the newly energized cleanup. In the end, the policies that can save the Chesapeake Bay have always hinged on the changing winds of American politics

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