Not an Environmental Problem but a Political One - Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay with Tom Pelton

The Chesapeake Bay as a Reflection of American Political Life

By Tom Pelton

As a journalist covering local government across different regions of the U.S. – in Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts – I witnessed a pattern that was disturbing to me. Forests and fields were being blacktopped by suburban sprawl, which was destroying not only natural landscapes but also draining the economic life out of unique and charming towns and cities.

When I started working as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun in 1997, this sterilization of the American landscape became all the more offensive to me, because I saw that it was now defacing one of the world’s great ecological masterpieces: the Chesapeake Bay.   For the next 20 years, I wrote about Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay – including as an environmental reporter for The Sun, then as host of the public radio program “The Environment in Focus” on Baltimore’s WYPR 88.1 FM.  John Hopkins University Press Editor Robert Brugger was a fan of my radio show, and one day emailed me to ask if I could write a book about the bay.  I seized on my book project as an opportunity to conduct a sweeping analysis of the Chesapeake’s history, tributaries, people, wildlife, and what has worked and failed in three decades of bay cleanup efforts.

Over the years that I researched and wrote the book, I learned several things that surprised me and that I think that voters paying for the multi-billion-dollar bay restoration need to know. These include:

1) A lack of progress in Pennsylvania is a primary obstacle in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. A large percentage of farmers in the bay watershed of the state still do not have or follow manure runoff control plans that were required by law more than three decades ago. This is both a failure of law enforcement and reflection of a profound political problem. Elected officials in Pennsylvania simply do not want to enforce the laws they have on the books because it would be unpopular with politically powerful farm lobby, which is reflexively anti-government and anti-regulation. For this reason, federal intervention in the bay cleanup is necessary to make Pennsylvania stop dumping on its downstream neighbors.

2) The EPA Chesapeake Bay Program’s primary yardstick for measuring progress in the bay cleanup is not water quality monitoring, but computer modeling that is overly optimistic and not based on reality.

3) Reductions in air pollution from Republican President George H. W. Bush’s Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and other federal and state air regulations were among the primary drivers of improvements in water quality that the bay has enjoyed in recent years. This is surprising, because many people assumed that the improvements in the bay were being caused by reductions in runoff pollution from farms.

4) Dozens of cities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Baltimore and Harrisburg, still intentionally discharge millions of gallons of raw sewage into their local waterways, even though this has been illegal since the 1972 passage of the federal Clean Water Act. This is a reflection of a profound failure by federal, state and city governments to invest in urban infrastructure since World War II.

More broadly, what sets apart my book from others in the field is that it is more expansive than some previous books about the Chesapeake Bay. It covers not only the history and ecology of the bay and its tributaries, but also provides profiles of important (as well as little-known) players in the cleanup, and analyzes the success and failure of pollution control policies and fisheries management strategies.

My book debunks a few longstanding myths.  Among them is the popular notion that we can “save the bay” if all collaborate in a voluntary effort to individually reduce pollution by driving less, bicycling more, changing our lightbulbs, buying “Treasure the Chesapeake” license plates, and supporting other non-regulatory actions. Personal responsibility like this is good – but far from enough.  We need collective action, organized by American democracy, to reduce pollution from everyone and all industries, not just a few virtuous individuals. In fact, pushing purely voluntary methods can hurt the bay, because it can serve as a distraction and a political substitute for the strong environmental laws and regulations that are needed for the bay’s survival. My book describes trendy, voluntary efforts as a form of “desperate environmentalism” that is popular among cynical politicians and corporations – but a weak stand-in for the muscular enforcement of old-school pollution control laws.

In the end, the bay’s biggest problem is not poultry manure or even human waste -- it’s hogwash like voluntary partnerships with polluters. These alternative approaches – such as pollution credit trading -- are increasingly popular among elected officials and the environmental policy elite but are not as effective as regulations that limit destructive human behavior. Voters and taxpayers in the Chesapeake Bay region need to hear this, because the bay cleanup effort of the last three decades has been a murky river of hype as well as hope, of broken promises as much as environmental leadership.  My book reminds readers of the unpleasant necessity of environmental regulation and assertive federal leadership from EPA, which is currently being stripped of its power and funding by the Trump Administration.

Yes, I’m being political.  But the Chesapeake Bay cleanup is, at bottom, not an environmental problem but a political one. More profoundly, it’s a reflection of a social and religious crisis. In the end, what we need is more trust in our democracy and more faith in the idea of living within mutually beneficial rules established by our democracy.  Unfortunately, these days, we are up against not just water pollution, but a radical anti-government ideology that worships the acquisition of money and individual power over all else. This ideology is fundamentally selfish and destructive not only to nature, but to humanity itself.  This disease in American public life is an issue far more grave than simply the Chesapeake and “saving the bay.” We need to save ourselves. In the face of a cynical anti-government, anti-regulatory political wave, we need to rebuild a basic confidence in the ability of people to work together through democratic government to make the world a better place. The problem is, nobody wants to sacrifice anything for the good of others. The only way to cross that river is by loving your neighbor, and that requires a cleanup of the soul.

Tom Pelton is the host of the public radio program The Environment in Focus. A former staff reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, he has also written for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He is author of the book The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World