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At the Root of the Problems with the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

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Not long ago on this program, I offered an analysis of what would be required to really save the Bay.

To start significantly improving water quality in the Chesapeake, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would need to crack down on Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth is by far the bay’s biggest polluter. But it’s done far less than Maryland and Virginia to control manure runoff from its farms or modernize its sewage treatment plants.

Of course, beyond Pennsylvania, there are many other simple steps the federal and state governments could take in the other Bay states.  For example, Maryland and Virginia could -- and should -- impose a 10 year moratorium on the harvesting of oysters, which are at one percent of historic levels.

Farmers who receive government subsidies should be required, as a condition of receiving that taxpayer money, to fence their cattle out of streams and  allow portions of their fields beside waterways to grow back into forests, so the trees can filter the water.  In suburban areas, government should ban the use of lawn fertilizer.  And counties should require that all new homes be built in towns or cities served by state-of-the art sewage treatment plants, not in sprawling developments that destroy fields and forests.

These simple, logical actions would work to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.  So after decades of talking but little progress, why haven’t we taken these obvious steps?

A counter-intuitive answer is that, actually we have, in a way. But because of the power for special interests in our legislative system, many of our landmark environmental laws – which sound so great in concept– are actually so riddled with loopholes and compromises that they produce only incremental progress, if any.

For example, Maryland lawmakers passed a Smart Growth law in 1997 that was supposed to solve our sprawl problem.  But because of the political influence of county governments, state lawmakers left the decision-making power for designating growth areas to the counties, which – in the end -- didn’t want to change their suburban development patterns.

Even where strong laws exist, they are often not enforced.  More than a decade ago, for example, Pennsylvania passed a law requiring all livestock farms to obtain and follow manure management plans, which reduce runoff pollution into streams. State officials, however, chose not to enforce it because it was unpopular among farmers. The result: worse water quality for farmers and everyone else.

Across the country, there is a growing amount of pushback from property owners who are reflexively anti-government – a fire being fanned by Fox News and polluting industries.

In 2010 the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring stormwater pollution control fees. The fees were attacked as a “rain tax.” That wasn’t true. The fees were on blacktop and parking lots – not rain -- and they paid for the planting of trees and roadside gardens and the restoration of streams. But in April, state lawmakers repealed the mandate. And on Monday, Baltimore County voted to phase out its fees. Homeowners  in the county had such a  distrust of government they couldn’t chip in even another two bucks a months to help save the bay.

It's healthy – and very American – to be skeptical of taxes and government.  There is reason for skepticism: elected officials need to be more candid about what’s in the laws they pass, and to enforce the laws that exist.  But the problem is: this rational skepticism has mutated into a cancer that is weakening not only government – but the very idea that people can work together to solve common problems of all kinds.  And this is a far bigger problem than a polluted bay.

So what’s the answer?  It’s not only that we need government action – although we clearly do, to stop problems like Pennsylvania’s dumping on the Bay.   More importantly, we need a new faith that says: we can make a healthier world by being humble enough to accept the idea of collective action, through our Democratic system, to repair our common home.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.