Vol. 8, No. 50
Dec. 14-20, 2000
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Bay Program Plugs Loopholes on Seeping Poisons

Baysiders were stunned last month on reading in The Sun that the Maryland Department of the Environment had allowed a company to dump thousands upon thousands of pounds of hazardous wastes each month into a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. There was a loophole in the law, we were told lamely, and the state could do nothing about it.

The discharge from Bethlehem Steel, which had gone on since 1985, was especially shocking given the many programs, expenditures and earnest efforts to restore the Bay. Used to hearing about how much we're doing - and spending - to clean up our Bay, Marylanders were confused. Did this mean that if you're a big business and have lots of lawyers, you get to play by your own rules?

That troubling disclosure is among the reasons that Baysiders should applaud this week's news that Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia have signed a first-ever agreement to keep toxics out of Chesapeake Bay.

Yes, this is the first time the mighty forces of the Chesapeake Bay Program have been united against toxics. Until now, discharges of mercury, PCBs, chlordane and the like into the Bay were regulated by only a patchwork of state and federal laws. The great campaign to clean up the Bay we've been following for the past 15 years targeted only nutrients, which are only half the problem.

Now, war has been declared on toxics.

Leading up the agreement, scientists labored for years to measure toxic contamination of the Bay. Now they've identified the problem - including three toxic "hot spots" in the Baltimore harbor and Anacostia and Elizabeth rivers - and resolved to get a grip on toxic releases.

Indeed, they're promising a Chesapeake Bay "free of toxics." Or at least "eliminating the input of chemical contaminants from all controllable sources to levels that result in no toxic or bioaccumulative impact on the living resources that inhabit the Bay or on human health."

That's a worthy goal, and we hope that our leaders do a better job of achieving it than putting it down in plain English.

The pact aims to reduce the amount of wastes flowing out of factories and power plants. It seeks to eliminate another of those loopholes for dumping, something called "mixing zones," where factories legally dump diluted chemicals into waterways. It's encouraging that 300 businesses have agreed already to take part in the new plan without being forced to do so by court order.

It plans an equal attack on "non-point sources" of toxics that seep in or run off as a result of our everyday habits rather than pouring out of an industrial pipe.

The new Bay cleanup agreement is an important step for several reasons.

First, we sometimes forget that the Chesapeake Bay is so fragile - it's burdened by too many people living around it - and that it's extraordinarily shallow, which prevents it from being regularly flushed of contaminants.

Second, the agreement represents the wisdom of regional government, in which jurisdictions with common interests combine to govern themselves. It goes without saying that pollution knows no political bounds, and agreements like this new one can thwart selfishness or stupidity by one neighbor.

Third, in this unsettled political climate, we need to get while the gettin's good. There is virtually no one believable who thinks that environmental enforcement will not be reduced under the "voluntary compliance" schemes promised by George W. Bush. If that turns out to be true, then for years to come the burden will rest on states to plug up seeping toxic pollution that threatens our Bay and our health.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly