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A Reality Check on Martin O'Malley's Claim that he "Saved the Bay"

As Martin O’Malley continues his uphill run for President, his campaign website lists, among his accomplishments as governor of Maryland, that he: “Saved the Chesapeake Bay.” 

“Saved the Chesapeake Bay?” laughed former Maryland State Senator Gerry Winegrad, a Democrat and former chairman of the senate environmental matters subcommittee who now teaches a class about the bay at the University of Maryland. “That would rank four Pinocchios in The Washington Post.”

O’Malley’s website goes on to explain that, during his term in office, the state reduced its nitrogen pollution by 14 percent, phosphorus pollution by 15 percent, and sediment by 18 percent, while the state’s population grew.

But those numbers are not based on actual water quality monitoring. The figures are from computer simulations of what -- theoretically -- should eventually happen in the Chesapeake Bay based on actions taken on the land during O’Malley’s term.  Water quality monitoring data maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey paint a more ambiguous picture of O’Malley’s term in office, with pollution levels in the Choptank River worsening over the last decade, and a mixture of success and failure in the Patuxent and Potomac rivers.

The most recent University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science report card on the Chesapeake Bay's health gave the estuary a 50 percent rating out of 100.  Water clarity, underwater grasses, and algae blooms were actually worse in O’Malley’s last year in office – 2014 – than when he took office in 2007. Only slightly better were blue crabs populations, dissolved oxygen levels, and estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

Winegrad said this about the claim on O’Malley’s campaign website that he “Saved the Bay”: “It is simply an overstatement. And it is somewhat outrageous that the Chesapeake Bay is still in major decline.  The fisheries are in decline, and humans are getting flesh-eating diseases that threaten both life and limb.”

To be fair, the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria infections that Winegrad is talking about are rare.  And O’Malley’s record on environmental issues was generally positive.  

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave the governor a B+ grade in 2011. The group praised the O’Malley administration for its restrictions on catching female blue crabs, which had been in decline; its creation of new oyster sanctuaries to cover a quarter of the remaining reefs in the bay; its encouragement of oyster aquaculture; its crackdown on illegal fishing for striped bass; its doubling of the state’s “flush tax” to pay for sewage plant improvements; and its efforts (although thwarted by the current governor, Larry Hogan) to boost mass transportation through a proposed rail “red line” in Baltimore.

“Governor O’Malley definitely had a strong record for governors in Maryland,” said Carla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.  “In 2013, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave him our climate visionary award for many of the actions he took as governor. His agencies were responsible for putting forth a greenhouse gas reduction plan that would reduce Greenhouse Gas by 25 percent by 2020. He was also very active in passing an offshore wind energy act in 2013.”

On the negative side, O’Malley had an unhealthy, cozy relationship with Maryland’s poultry industry and specifically with the general counsel for Maryland-based Perdue Farms Inc., Herb Frerichs, a former law school classmate of O’Malley’s, according to emails obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act by an environmental group, Food & Water Watch.   Employees of Frerich’s lawfirm, Baltimore-based Venable LLP (who include O’Malley’s brother and former campaign manager, Peter O’Malley), have been, as a group, the largest contributors to O’Malley’s presidential campaign, with its employees pouring in almost $100,000, according to Open Secrets.org.

Perhaps because of his close ties to Perdue – and perhaps because he had his eyes on farm votes needed in the Iowa caucuses – Martin O’Malley repeatedly delayed – and then never actually imposed – much-needed regulations to stop the chronic over-application of poultry manure to farm fields on the Eastern Shore.

O'Malley threatened to veto a bill that would have imposed fees on the poultry industry to help pay for pollution reduction efforts in the Bay.  In 2013, he signed an “agricultural certainty” law that gives some farms a 10-year exemption from any new environmental laws or regulations.

And O’Malley and his allies publicly attacked and threatened to cut state funding from the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic when it represented an Eastern Shore environmental group in a failed lawsuit against a poultry operation, Hudson Farms, that was accused of polluting a stream.

Although agriculture remains the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, O’Malley praised and blessed Maryland’s farmers during a recent speech before The Des Moines Register editorial board.

O'Malley described his state's cleanup efforts: “We would engage in actions on the land to reduce the nitrogen, sediment and phosphrous flow, and we’d measure where we were doing it. The farmers in Maryland, God bless them, were actually ahead of the curve on this and were doing a whole lot of good things on best management practices (to reduce pollution) for years.”

O’Malley did not mention that these same farmers, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore during his term, continued to apply poultry manure at three times the rate needed by crops, leading to the severe overloading of the soil with phosphorus and runoff of this pollutant into the bay.

In 2007, O’Malley created the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund to use rental car and gas taxes to pay for projects to reduce runoff pollution.  But then, in 2011, he transferred $60 million from what was supposed to be a dedicated Bay cleanup fund because he wanted to use the money to pay for the general operations of government, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

O’Malley promised to “fully fund” Program Open Space, a state effort that since 1969 had imposed a real estate transfer tax that was supposed to be set aside strictly for buying up and protecting fields and forests and building playgrounds. But then, after O'Malley's first two years in office, he turned out to be just as bad as his Republican predecessor, Governor Bob Ehrlich, in hijacking much of the money from the fund to  balance the state budget, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

In the end, O’Malley’s record with the Chesapeake Bay was similar to his record as fighting crime as mayor of Baltimore. He made things slightly better.  But he also made some bad decisions for political reasons. In the end, what he actually achieved was far less than what his hyperbole would suggest -- and he did not save the bay, just as he did not save Baltimore.

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.