Gazette: The costs of doing nothing to clean up the bay

The costs of doing nothing to clean up the bay

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012

Katherine Heerbrandt, staff writer

Frederick County has led the way in identifying the costs of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, but advocates say the cost of doing nothing may be much more daunting than the pricetag for reducing pollution in the bay’s 64,000-square mile watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has to navigate some rough waters to convince some stakeholders, such as the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, that the costs are worth it and that everyone will benefit.

States in the bay’s watershed — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York —- are charged with enforcing a pollution diet for the bay, as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to significantly cut water pollution by 2025.

Cleanup efforts of this magnitude have no precedent, so the outcome could serve as an example to the rest of the world, according to Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Dead zones,” where nothing grows due to overuse and significant pollution, exist in waterways in the U.S. and around the world.

But some local governments and other groups, already reeling from economic setbacks, are balking at what they consider the cost-prohibitive mandates.

“There is going to be a cost, there’s no question about it … but the first [cost] estimates are always just nuts,” Siglin said.

Reduction goals that affect local governments and the building industry include upgrades to treatment plants, septics and the systems that filter pollutants from stormwater.

For farmers, changes include narrowing the time that fertilization can be applied, planting cover crops and fencing off streams from livestock, among other initiatives. Farmers receive subsidies to help cover the costs.

Frederick County initially estimated its costs of compliance at up to $4 billion or more in the next 13 years.

Shannon Moore, the county’s manager of sustainability, has been putting dollars signs to pollution reduction mandates for the past year, and looking for some flexibility in the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan to be able to achieve reduction goals in the most cost-effective way.

In the meantime, the county commissioners are not backing down in their opposition to the plan.

The commissioners and a local-land use attorney recently took aim at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for a published opinion article espousing the value of cleaning up the bay.

County Commissioner Paul Smith (R) said the most egregious of the foundation’s assertions was the claim that the cost of reducing pollution in the bay is worth it — without mentioning the cost.

“Frederick County has been on top of this for a year … we assessed the cost, and it was excessive,” Smith said at a commissioners meeting on Sept. 20.

Attorney Rand Weinberg took up Smith’s argument during the public comment portion of the meeting, accusing the foundation of changing from a group devoted to protecting the bay to “another loud, no growth organization” that “conveniently omits the facts.”

Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young reported that his cab company, Yellow Cab, has gotten rid of all its “Save the Bay” license plates as an act of defiance. The plates raise money for the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a grants organization that gives money to groups committed to cleaning up waterways.

Tom Zolper, spokesman for the foundation, said answers to the question of costs are “coming slowly,” in part because the effort is unprecedented and involves the future.

“We are trailblazers,” Zolper said. “This is new stuff.”

Also, many of the problems associated with water pollution have not been researched, he said.

For example, bacterial pollution of many rural streams in Western Maryland and the impacts on drinking water is a big problem, and has been for a long time, but associated cleanup costs have not been analyzed, Zolper said. Cleaning up the bay means cleaning up the the smaller waterways, including streams, creeks and rivers, he said.

But Zolper was able to compile a list of costs and potential costs of not cleaning up the bay, culled from various reports and research from academic and government agencies.

Most notably, reports from the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, estimate the value of the bay related to fishing, tourism, property values and shipping activities at over $1 trillion, he said.

Despite the potential for economic loss from a degraded bay, the benefits of a healthy bay cannot be fully determined, according to Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

People rely on nature and know there is value to it, and that does not always include a fixed dollar sign, he said.

“We have to think broadly about the benefits …. from local water quality to mitigating food risks to quality of life … Local governments should be thinking of these requirements not as a burden but as an opportunity to improve their communities,” Boesch said.

If those opposed to the policies enforcing the federal pollution diet have their way, cleaning up the bay will not only be a dream deferred, but a dream lost, Boesch said.

As a scientist and bay advocate for most of his extensive career, Boesch said the time is now for bay cleanup or it will be lost forever.

Attempts to start on the bay cleanup with voluntary compliance in 1983, 1987 and 2000 failed, Boesch said. The federal enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the states’ compliance in mandating changes is the watershed’s last chance at purity, he said.

“I am a scientist who uses real data and real observations, and I don’t see any empirical evidence, given our past record, that we will ever have another chance like this,” he said.

Pressures from climate change and population growth will soon be insurmountable, Boesch said.