Hope for bay, but still reason for skepticism
The Capital, January 06, 2009
Former state senator Bernie Fowler was waiting for a news conference to begin yesterday when what appeared to be President-elect Barack Obama's motorcade drove by. (At least we were pretty sure it was his. The timing fit his visit to Capitol Hill, but there are a lot of motorcades in the district.)
Mr. Obama was on his way to meet with congressional leaders about an economic stimulus package likely to include hundreds of billions in new spending, so Mr. Fowler, a longtime Chesapeake Bay advocate from Calvert County, had an idea.
"We've got a place they could put about $20 billion of it, don't we?" he joked to Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as they watched the tailing police cars move farther away.
The two men were outside the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., to announce the filing of a lawsuit accusing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to follow congressional mandates to clean up the bay.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Mr. Obama happened to drive by. There was a lot of talk about change yesterday, with the CBF and allies hopeful that things will soon be different after eight years of the Bush administration's deregulation and resistance to environmental funding.
The lawsuit marks a change in strategy for environmental advocates, who have long tried to work with federal officials but are now taking a more aggressive stance.
Mr. Baker, who called the lawsuit the most significant in the history of bay restoration, said he thinks there can be significant improvement within five years if the right steps are taken.
Still, there's great reason to be skeptical - about 25 years' worth of reasons, to be specific. How many news conferences have there been announcing new laws or agreements with the feds? How many times before have there been "new beginnings"?
The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was in 1983; the latest was in 2000.
Mr. Fowler, 84, who is one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, is tired of waiting.
"There's only two ways that we'll see any drastic change in the Chesapeake Bay, which is long overdue," he said. "And that is divine intervention or recourse in the courts. ... Today really is the beginning. How it will end, only God knows."
The U.S. District Court is slightly more accessible than the Almighty, but both can take a long time to answer prayers.
The 41-page lawsuit accuses the EPA of failing to enforce the Clean Water Act, specifically a provision added in 2000 in which Congress required the agency to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreements.
Those agreements, signed by the federal government and several states, required specific reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus, which are not inherently harmful but have dire consequences in larger concentrations.
Besides the CBF, plaintiffs include former Maryland governor Harry Hughes and the Maryland and Virginia watermen's associations.
Jon A. Mueller, the lead attorney for CBF, said he plans to meet with members of Mr. Obama's transition team, perhaps before the new president is inaugurated on Jan. 20. He said an agreement is possible, though it would have to be a court-ordered deal with sanctions for non-compliance.
Mr. Fowler's $20 billion figure might have been a joke, but the idea of the bay cleanup as a source of economic stimulus certainly is not. Indeed, if the cleanup is going to work, that might be one key: not simply pitching it as the right thing to do, but figuring out how to make money by doing it.
"Talk about an economic engine," Mr. Fowler mused. "What better way to create jobs?"
Mr. Obama and many others have talked about "green-collar" jobs in areas like clean energy as a way to both re-energize the nation's economy and stop our dependence on dirty foreign oil.
In the bay region, that could mean lots of jobs in engineering and construction. Mr. Baker said the two most pressing needs are upgrading sewage treatment plants and creating stormwater runoff mitigation - in essence, keeping what comes off all those thousands of parking lots, driveways and yards from going into the bay unfiltered.
The stakes - and the implications - are clear.
"Saving the Chesapeake Bay can be a model for success nationwide," Mr. Baker said. "Failure to save the bay will be a model of failure nationwide."
Potentially the best news about yesterday's lawsuit is that no one's fooling themselves anymore. As The Washington Post recently reported, federal officials admitted exaggerating progress on bay cleanup to keep their funding coming. And in a sense, we were all kidding ourselves about how serious the problem was and what needed to be done.
"We've been pretending much too long," Mr. Fowler said.
(Revised January 2009)