New Group Seeks Alternate Bay Cleanup Strategy

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New Group Seeks Alternate Bay Cleanup Strategy

Leonardtown, MD - 1/17/2013

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By Dick Myers

Seven of Maryland’s 23 counties have joined forces to form a coalition fighting the state’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, particularly the emphasis on septic systems as the main pollution culprits. Representatives of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition Tuesday asked the St. Mary’s County Commissioners to become the eighth member.

While the majority of the commissioners were congratulatory of the coalition’s work, Commissioner President Francis “Jack” Russell was strongly opposed and expressed support for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s initiatives.

Frederick County Commissioner C. Paul Smith, a member of the coalition’s executive committee, and Charles “Chip” MacLeod, a Chestertown lawyer with the Funk & Bolton law firm, appeared before the commissioners to state the coalition’s case.

The coalition contends that the aging Conowingo Dam at the head of the Bay is a much larger culprit for Bay pollution than septic systems and waste water treatment plants. Smith said the sediment backup behind the dam regularly overflows into the Bay, and offered a satellite map that showed an extensive sediment plume after a storm in 2011.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation contends that the runoffs are irregular and contribute only part of the Bay pollution along with septic system discharges, sewage treatment plants and agricultural runoff, and all need to be addressed. Governor O’Malley made that point in a letter to the counties in response to the coalition’s assertions.

But the two coalition representatives contend the dam’s sediment overflow is routine and that the result is the smothering of oysters and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), both of which are important pollution filters.

Most importantly to the counties, the coalition feels that the proposed costs for the Watershed Improvement Plans (WIPs) being forced on the counties by the state and EPA will break the bank. The price tag for St. Mary’s County alone is $176 million to upgrade or replace septic systems.

Smith told the commissioners that the fixes to the Conowingo Dam, “can be done cheaper and get more bang for the buck.” The dam is up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and MacLeod, whose firm represents the coalition, said they were going to intervene in the proceedings to make sure that the new license requires dredging of the spoils behind the dam. He says Maryland, Pennsylvania and the operator of the dam haven’t addressed that problem and all deny responsibility for the cost.

MacLeod formerly worked for the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO). He said when asked by Commissioner Todd Morgan (R: 4th) that the coalition’s main issues are difficult for MACO to deal with because of the mix of opinions among the counties. He called the issue too political for MACO, Democratic majority counties tend to support Gov. O’Malley initiatives.

Smith said Maryland only contributes 20 percent of the water loading of the Bay. Virginia is taking a state-wide approach, he said, while Maryland is forcing the costs on the already fiscally hard pressed counties. “There needs to be a regional approach,” Smith said.

MacLeod said there has been much talk and much studying of the Bay for 40 years, yet he concluded, “We are no better off. We have little to celebrate today about the progress of saving the Chesapeake Bay.” He said the death of the Bay can be marked with Tropical Storm Agnes in the early 1970s which poured in fresh water and sediment from upstream. “It’s been downhill ever since,” he said.

“Local elected officials are the last line of defense about how monies are spent,” MacLeod said. The organization was formed when Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore approached him about helping to create an organized approach to fighting the Bay initiatives.

MacLeod said the organization has been painted by some as a bunch of radicals, even though they are just the officials of the seven county members. “You have to have this debate. There is no shame about bringing this issue up,” he said. He noted that the coalition will lobby about their issues during the current Maryland General Assembly session.

The coalition recognizes the contribution of agricultural runoff to the overall pollution problem. After all, most of the sediment gathering behind the Conowingo Dam is agricultural runoff from farms along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. But the coalition wants to work with farmers to solve the problem instead of demonizing them. “Agriculture is one of the most efficient ways of addressing pollution in the Bay,” he said.

MacLeod said a study by the University of Maryland last year confirmed the inability of the counties to pay their portion of the $14.5 billion price tag. The study does note the contribution of the Conowingo Dam to Bay pollution.

MacLeod also noted the high price tag for dredging the shipping channel and Baltimore harbor of the sediment running down the Bay from spillover from the dam. Also the dredging releases nutrients embedded in the sediment that also causes pollution. Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe (R: 3rd) later in the meeting noted that wouldn’t be a problem if the dredging occurred behind the dam.

MacLeod said the estimate for dredging just what reaches the dam every year is $48 million. That estimate doesn’t address the cost of dredging the accumulated sediment and also what to do with it after it’s dredged. But he said the cost would be a lot less than $14.5 billion.

Commissioners Morris, Jones and Jarboe all expressed admiration and support for what the coalition is doing. “Our citizens deserve common sense solutions,” Jones said. Jarboe said he was especially pleased at the coalition’s recognition of the importance of oysters as filtering mechanisms for the Bay’s pollution.

Commissioner Morgan did express some reservations about possible duplication with MACO effort. The county is active in MACO.

But it was Commissioner President Russell (D) who said he took offense with the coalition’s agenda. Pointing out that he is a life-time waterman, he said, “We see different issues than the Conowingo. He added, “MACO does a very good job of representing the county’s needs. Some of these things are mere duplication.”

Russell said a study showed that the dam didn’t need dredging until 2030. MacLeod countered that the study is flawed and out of date. “It is today,” he said of the need for sediment dredging.

MacLeod at that point tried to downplay any contention between his organization and MACO. “I have a soft spot for MACO,” he said. He admitted the new organization may have started its existence with a more strident message but he said they have toned it down. He added that the issues would be difficult for MACO to handle.

Russell countered: “This is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed. This (the coalition’s agenda) would be very fractious to MACO.” Russell also noted that he wasn’t offended by the governor’s letter in response to the coalition’s efforts.

The commissioners did not vote on the coalition’s request for $25,000 for membership which also includes voting rights. The other county members are Frederick, Kent, Allegany, Caroline, Carroll, Dorchester and Cecil.

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