Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Bay Garners Another Low Mark

Media General News Service

Published: April 16, 2009

The Chesapeake Bay is gravely ill, and it’s not getting better.

That’s the message of the annual state-of-the-bay report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group.

The foundation gave the bay a score of 28 yesterday — a “D” — out of a possible 100. Although the numeric score has fluctuated slightly, that’s the 10th “D” in 10 years of reports.

Under the report’s scoring system, a restored bay would get a 70. The 100 represents what the bay looked like when Captain John Smith arrived in 1607 — a pristine state no longer considered within reach.

“The bay is operating at about a quarter of its historic potential,“ said Chuck Epes, a spokesman for the bay group’s Virginia office. “It’s still a system that’s incredibly out of balance and in crisis.“

In response, a key official in President Barack Obama’s administration pledged a renewed effort to save the polluted estuary.

“Its continued poor health is nothing short of a tragedy to the people of the region,“ said Chuck Fox, senior adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency for the bay.

The bay continues to suffer from excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus contained in sewage-plant discharges, lawn-and-farm fertilizers and animal waste, among other things.

The pollution fuels the growth of algae that foul the bay and waters, such as the James River, that lead to it.

The dirty waters have contributed to declines in oysters, crabs, underwater grasses and other indicators of bay health. Bay foundation scientists consider the health of those species and others in preparing the annual report.

Will Baker, president of the Annapolis, Md.-based foundation, called on the EPA to tighten pollution rules for new developments and to reduce pollution that runs off urban and suburban lands during rain.

Baker also said the EPA should deny permits for new coal-burning power plants, which the group said can contaminate waterways with air- borne nitrogen.

Fox, the Obama official, said at an Annapolis news conference that it will take years to clean the bay. But he added, “We can and do pledge to provide the leadership necessary to ... reduce pollution substantially.“

In similar reports this spring, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the bay a C-minus, and the Chesapeake Bay Program — the cleanup effort by federal and state agencies — scored the bay’s health a 38 out of 100.

Efforts to restore the bay over more than 25 years have been overcome largely by population increases in the bay’s watershed — more people making more pollution.

In January, the bay foundation filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the EPA to do more to clean the bay. The suit is pending in federal court in Washington.

Rex Springston is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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