By: Gerald Winegrad, Capital Columnist
After 36 years, the Bay Program is at its nadir. Impeding recovery is a lack of political will to take the necessary regulatory steps to curb farm and development pollution. The cops on the beat are looking the other way as U.S. EPA not only is failing to enforce pollution limits imposed on the states under the Clean Water Act, but now contends these mandatory limits are “aspirational” and not enforceable.
Coupled with the President attempting to eliminate the Bay Program, started and funded by President Reagan in 1984, the entire formal cleanup is hanging by a thread as the environmental community lacks the ability to prod policy makers to take the bold steps necessary. The results—flesh-eating diseases infecting humans from bay water contact, toxic hot spots, and collapsed fisheries.
Decision makers and some environmental groups resort to Green Scamming where half-measures of little impact are lauded, and successes claimed to satisfy voters or donors.
In his second inaugural address, Gov. Hogan claimed: “And we practiced skilled stewardship of the environment, which resulted in a Chesapeake Bay that is cleaner than it has been in recorded history.” This deserves 4 Pinocchios as nearly 60% of the bay’s waters are polluted failing Clean Water Act requirements. Twenty nineteen saw the third largest dead zone. Gov. Hogan cut environmental enforcement funding, and enforcement actions significantly declined. He blocked efforts to tighten or enforce laws on forest conservation, septic tanks, and farm pollution while making millions through his land development company.
His predecessor, Martin O’Malley, claimed on his website while running for president that “He had restored the Chesapeake Bay.”
County Executive Steuart Pittman falsely claims he “passed the strongest forest conservation bill in the state.” Pittman violated a written campaign pledge to introduce and work to enact a no net loss forest conservation law as the City of Annapolis did. Instead, he introduced a much weaker version, then accepted weakening amendments that all but crippled any substantial new forest conservation.
The city law is far more stringent than the county law. If Crystal Spring was still in the county, developers could clear the 30 acres planned and not have to replant forest. City law requires 100% to be replanted.
The environmental community is complicit in this Green Scamming, with CBF and the local Sierra Club claiming success abetting Pittman’s campaign pledge violation. Pittman checks off the political box marked “Forest Conservation” as do the environmental groups.
Despite years of studies and a new stock assessment showing a collapse of oyster populations largely due to overharvest, the legislature chose to override the veto of legislation that fails to restrict harvest and instead appoints a commission with 60% of its membership from the oyster industry to develop another oyster management plan after one was developed in 2019. The commission must concur by a 75% vote in any actions. Desperate to claim a success, the override was championed by legislators and CBF when the best way to restore this bay-filtering organism is the enactment of measures to close or restrict oyster harvest.
Now, legislators will check off their “oyster conservation” box as has CBF. CBF would not support harvest restrictions while it takes $3 million from NOAA to plant oysters, many or most of which are poached or die. Hogan’s Department of Natural Resources fails to restrict harvest in any meaningful fashion.
In 2018, environmental groups led by CBF joined Governor Hogan and the EPA in touting a “record” 2017 acreage of bay grasses. The 104,843 acres were far from a record. CBF’s website noted grasses covered several hundreds of thousands of acres. The real story is the bay states failed to come close to their commitment to restore 185,000 acres of essential bay grass coverage by 2010.
Tom Pelton, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and CBF staffer, details similar observations in his book, The Chesapeake in Focus. He calls out the failure to close the oyster fishery and aggressively regulate farm pollution, especially from chicken manure. He terms the Green Scamming “environmental desperation” meaning taking any enactment as a success.
Pelton states CBF has gone from Saving The Bay to Trading The Bay in capitulating to the agricultural community and raising more than $20 million to make nice with farmers.
It is with deep regret that I write these words, but I have no greater disappointment since I left the legislature than the failure of the environmental community to mature and become a formidable political force. I note that one of their top legislative priorities is a ban on plastic bags. Nothing is on the agenda for reducing farm and development runoff pollution, stop forest loss, or end oyster overharvest.
Under the existing political situation, only the environmental community can force the bold actions necessary to restore and protect the Chesapeake. So far, they are not.
Gerald Winegrad served in the Maryland legislature for 16 years and led efforts to restore the bay. He chaired the Senate Environment and Chesapeake Bay Subcommittee and has taught graduate courses in Bay Restoration since 1988. His column on the environment appears weekly. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org;