Responsibility Without Accountability: Failed Cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay

by Rena Steinzor

The Chesapeake Bay watershed covers 64,000 square miles, measuring 200 miles in length and 35 miles at its widest point. The watershed is one of the most beautiful and economically productive in the world. Tourism, which depends to a large extent on the preservation of pristine environmental conditions, contributes billions of dollars to the economies of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As Shana Jones recently wrote on CPRBlog, the Bay is plagued by so-called “nutrient loading,” a condition where a river or stream is choked with organic matter discharged from sewage treatment plants and manufacturing facilities or washed into the water by rainwater runoff from hog and chicken farms, other agricultural lands, and urban centers.

Nutrient loading kills fish and other aquatic life, accelerates the growth of algal blooms, and, at its worst, results in “dead zones” where natural resources cannot survive.

Between 1995 and 2004, the federal government provided $3.7 billion dollars in direct spending for Bay restoration. An additional $1.9 billion was spent on programs that have an indirect effect on improving the Bay’s conditions. Although these amounts sound like a great deal of money, most experts agree that significantly more funding will be necessary to complete the job. But the restoration effort is in crisis at the moment, largely because the Bay is not in any better shape than it was a decade ago.

The entity getting most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs is the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). Founded in 1983, the CBP combines representatives from the EPA and its state regulatory counterparts in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The CBP has no independent regulatory authority. Instead, it depends on dozens of committees, working groups, and taskforces to jawbone, shame, and cajole the partners to redouble their pollution control efforts. The CBP has established a series of goals for reducing nutrient loading. It has met none of them, and in fact, never even come close to meeting any of them. In recent years, critics have ridiculed it for producing a large array of beautifully illustrated reports that put the most favorable gloss on environmental conditions in the Bay and the CBP partners’ activities.

For example, the CBP’s 2007 document, entitled A Report to the Citizens of the Bay Region, Chesapeake Bay Health & Restoration Assessment, contains close to 40 pages of lavish graphics, photographs, and text explaining all the man-made threats that impair the watershed. The report acknowledges that the Bay is in trouble, but obscures this hard reality with an overwhelming torrent of information about various “indicators”—bay grasses restored, levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, pictures of volunteers walking through beautiful wetlands. The report does not explain which specific institutions are responsible for addressing the worst problems. Instead, on page six, the authors tuck in the following throw-away line: “Program scientists project that little more than half of the pollution reduction efforts needed to achieve the nutrient goals have been undertaken since 1985.”  This remarkable admission suggests that the reason the Bay’s conditions continue to worsen is that the CBP partners have not gone nearly far enough in developing and implementing concrete regulatory programs that would prevent discharges of nutrients into the already polluted water. Or, in other words, not only does the report recite worsening environmental conditions in the Bay without tying these conditions to the regulatory efforts designed to improve them, the report ignores—and CBP partners have overlooked—a series of unnamed regulatory approaches that are necessary to restore the Bay to a healthy condition.

A slew of reasons explain these misfires. Some states benefit significantly more than others from tourism, and the partners are competitive with each other economically, producing distrust and even outright animosity on occasion. Local politicians jockey for credit and flee from criticism. The EPA, the only partner with the legal clout to make everyone toe the line, has consistently ducked any leadership role. The states underfund their environmental agencies, and these problems have grown worse during the global economic recession. And the law that determines the scope and content of such efforts—the Clean Water Act—is woefully outdated and inadequate. For more on that problem, see CPR's white paper by William Andreen and Shana Jones, The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform (4.7 meg download).

In a pointedly negative 2005 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that the CBP had established 101 “measures” that track environmental conditions in the Bay watershed:

Mirroring the shortcomings in the program’s measures, the Bay program’s primary mechanism for reporting on the health status of the bay—the State of the Chesapeake Bay Report—does not provide an effective or credible assessment on the bay’s current health status. This is because these reports (1) focus on individual species and pollutants instead of providing an overall assessment of the bay’s health; (2) commingle data on the bay’s health attributes with program actions, and (3) lack an independent review process. As a result, when these reports are issued, they do not provide information in a manner that would allow the public and stakeholders to easily determine how effective program activities have been in improving the health of the bay.

Tomorrow (Tuesday), the governors of the partner states and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will meet at Mount Vernon to take stock. Rumor has it that the newly reinvigorated Obama Administration EPA is ready to crack down, demanding real accountability from the states. The appointment of Chuck Fox, a seasoned regulator and long-time advocate for the Bay was the first indication that times may really have changed. And a new, impressively large coalition of environmental groups has advocated a series of broad-ranging reforms to restore the CBP’s credibility. (Disclaimer: CPR worked with the coalition to develop these recommendations.)

But the only way to tell whether EPA is really serious about these efforts will be to see if its plan includes a way to monitor what the states are actually doing to restore the Bay. Instead of pretty pictures, we need a real accountability mechanism that will impose real penalties on states that fail to meet their milestones for progress. Such a mechanism would keep track of the specific activities that states are supposed to be taking to clean up the Bay, calling them out in public if they fail to execute their responsibilities effectively.

So, for example, rather than empty promises about “working with farmers to reduce pollution,” the mechanism would report how many hog and chicken farms--“concentrated animal feeding operations” in the legal lexicon—are on the rolls in any given state, where they are located, whether they have current permits, and how often state inspectors have visited such facilities to ensure compliance.

If a state claims that it has funded farmers to plant “cover crops” to prevent soil erosion, the accountability mechanism would ask for a list of projects, the acres covered, their location, and whether the state has visited those places to ensure the crops are in place.

In sum, it’s long past time for the Chesapeake Bay “partners” to stop talking about progress and get results, holding each other accountable not for their fine rhetoric but for the work they actually do to save this threatened, invaluable, and irreplaceable resource.



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform