Bay cleanup succeeding despite Dorchester government’s opposition

We’ve been receiving encouraging reports recently of improvements in the health of the Chesapeake Bay and reductions in key pollutants since the Chesapeake Bay Program launched in 2010 its multi-state effort coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This program reversed a decades-old spiral of degradation of the Bay that threatened our local economy and quality of life.

After individual state and local efforts had failed to stem the Bay’s decline, the EPA launched a coordinated program among the six states and the District of Columbia in the Bay watershed to reduce Bay pollution based on a “pollution diet” involving total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) of pollutants allowable in order to achieve its primary pollution reduction goals by 2025: 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, 24 percent reduction in phosphorous, and 20 percent reduction in sediment. Watershed states and D.C. worked with EPA to apportion these TMDLs among the states, who then prepared and submitted Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) to achieve these goals. Maryland then involved local jurisdictions to develop individual county WIPs to accomplish Maryland’s portion of the cleanup.

Recent measurements and progress reports have shown these plans are achieving significant improvements that promise to reach 2025 goals. We’ve seen water clarity improve, bay grasses come back, algae blooms decline, and oxygen-depleted “dead zones” reduced.

Chesapeake Progress, which tracks the Chesapeake Bay Program’s progress toward the goals and outcomes, has determined through recent studies that the “pollution diet” controls put in place between 2009 and 2016 lowered nitrogen pollution by 9 percent, phosphorous pollution by 20 percent, and sediment by 9 percent. Given that the long term trend of increased pollution needed to first be reversed, this is encouraging and even astonishing progress in a relatively short period of time.

We have the tireless efforts of some counties and local organizations, municipalities and individuals to thank for this improvement in Bay health. Sadly, our own Dorchester County Government can’t share in the credit because from day one the County Council has rejected and opposed the EPA initiative. After Mike Moulds, the (then) county engineer, led a group to develop Dorchester’s WIP, called by some the best developed by Maryland counties, the Council issued a press release rejecting the plan and declaring they wouldn’t play ball citing various reasons: the cost to do everything was prohibitive, outsiders weren’t qualified to tell county farmers, watermen, etc., how to do things, and the Conowingo Dam needed to be cleaned up first.

Instead, the Council instigated an insurrection recruiting other counties and states to undermine the EPA/MDE effort, forming a coalition of 7 Maryland counties ironically named the Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC), with each member paying lawyers at the Funk and Bolton law firm $25-30,000 each year to represent them in challenging the Bay Program and help force Excelon Corp., owner of Conowingo, to pay fees/penalties and eliminate the sediment buildup.

What has Dorchester County received so far from the County’s intransigence and our payouts to lawyers, totaling about $150,000 to date? Apparently nothing. In fact, cleanup of our precious Bay has been significantly slower than it would have been if those attorney fees, totaling more than one million dollars to date from CCC participants had been applied to cleanup efforts.

Leveraged ten-fold with grant moneys, that could have been $10 million more spent on cleanup. What’s worse, nothing has been done to reduce pollution from Conowingo, though that issue will undoubtedly be resolved soon thanks to efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Nature Conservancy, an alliance of 18 riverkeepers, and other environmental groups.

The County Council expressed doubts in its press release that the EPA effort would produce any results. Fortunately, as the results to date show, they were very wrong thanks to the other counties as well as other organizations and individuals who decided the Bay was too important to neglect any longer.

Within our own county, Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth (DCPG), the U. of Md. Environmental Center at Horn Point, the City of Cambridge, other towns, and riverkeepers to name a few have been working hard on Bay cleanup. Even counties like Kent and Wicomico who are members of the CCC wisely decided to implement projects from their WIPs considered to be high-impact and affordable.

Ron Fithian, chair of the CCC and a Kent County Commissioner, said in 2012 that their push for a fix at Conowingo would NOT be an excuse to undermine local WIPs. Apparently the Dorchester County Council didn’t hear that, or chose to ignore it. They haven’t even appointed anyone to represent us in progress meetings or monitor/report cleanup efforts by our county, nor did they choose to participate in a recent CBF grant program at minimal to no cost to reduce runoff pollution, as the City of Cambridge has.

Dorchester County benefits as much or more from a healthier Bay than other counties in the watershed due to our extensive shoreline and local economy’s dependence on fishing, crabbing, oystering, and tourism, as well as real estate.

It’s time our County Council decides that we can no longer be a deadbeat bystander wasting tax money to line lawyers’ pockets while leaving cleanup of our waters to others, and embraces any and all efforts we can reasonably afford to contribute as our fair share to the considerable work that still needs to be done to reach the 2025 Chesapeake Bay Program pollution reduction goals. Better late than never.

Editor’s note: Mr. Brown is a resident of the Neck District in Dorchester County.

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