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The Chesapeake cleanup

August 22, 2003

It's been two decades since Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia formed a partnership with the federal government to save the Chesapeake Bay.

But Tom Horton, a Baltimore Sun columnist and author of four books about the bay, says that not much has been accomplished in that time.

As a result, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on Thursday called for major changes in the bay-restoration program. But whether states are willing to commit the money and restrain sprawl development is uncertain now.

The update of Horton's 1991 book, "Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay," confirms what we suspected about the effort: Like measures to help the family farm, bay restoration is something most agree is a good idea, as long as it doesn't interfere with business as usual.

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Horton's list of recommendations is familiar to those who followed the efforts of Gov. Parris Glendening. Horton would restrict sprawl development and the use of certain fertilizers, upgrade sewage plants and mandate new septic tank technology.

This last measure was one Glendening attempted with no success, but his "Smart Growth" anti-sprawl program has survived a political change in Annapolis because it saves the state money, now in short supply.

But where will the states find money to upgrade sewer plants? And if the states' lawmakers find the political will to further restrict development and fertilizer use, where will they find the cash for enforcement of those new rules?

Horton also correctly notes that because Pennsylvania would get little benefit from bay improvements, other states might have to compensate it for improvements made there.

We raise these issues not to argue that nothing can be done to improve the bay, but to make the point that whatever's done won't be cheap or easy to sell to the public.

For example, Horton notes that recreational boaters who dump their toilet tanks overboard are a "small but significant source of bay pollution." He would mandate that they dump instead at marinas, which would be required to have holding tanks.

Who'll pay to pump out those tanks? Who'll make sure that it's done?

Those are just two of the questions that must be answered if the latest bay cleanup effort is going to be more than happy talk that leads nowhere.

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