A bat­tle to keep bay restora­tion pro­gram

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JENNA PORTNOY

When Pres­i­dent Trump’s bud­get plan hit the In­ter­net at mid­night Wed­nes­day, Vir­ginia and Mary­land en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists could not be­lieve what they saw. A to­tal elim­i­na­tion of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pro­gram seemed im­pos­si­ble to them, con­sid­er­ing the suc­cess of the fed­er­ally funded six-state part­ner­ship over the past 15 years.

But in a two-sen­tence sec­tion of its bud­get plan, the White House dis­missed the mas­sive cleanup of a wa­ter body so large it can eas­ily be seen from space as a “re­gional ef­fort” that should not be funded by Washington.

So the ac­tivists got to work, along with elected of­fi­cials from through­out the re­gion, plan­ning ral­lies, fir­ing off dire warn­ings and promis­ing to pe­ti­tion the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in Congress, which has the ul­ti­mate say over whether to de­fund bay restora­tion.

“We will fight with ev­ery fiber in our bod­ies” to see the fund­ing

main­tained, Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Wil­liam C. Baker said on Thurs­day. “This just makes no sense. We are in dis­be­lief. The EPA’s role in this cleanup is noth­ing less than fun­da­men­tal.”

The $73 mil­lion-a-year En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency pro­gram has united Vir­ginia, Mary­land, Delaware, West Vir­ginia, Penn­syl­va­nia, New York and the Dis­trict of Columbia in work­ing to re­duce pol­lu­tion lev­els in the bay.

Cut­ting off fund­ing, bi­par­ti­san sup­port­ers of the cleanup say, would threaten multi­bil­lion dol­lar tourism, recre­ation and com­mer­cial in­dus­tries and could re­verse strides in wa­ter qual­ity that sus­tain fish­ing, boat­ing and crab­bing in the largest es­tu­ary in North Amer­ica.

Last year, the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pro­gram fun­neled about $9.3 mil­lion to Vir­ginia, $9 mil­lion to Mary­land and $2.6 mil­lion to the Dis­trict for state, lo­cal and non­profit projects and staff. The re­main­der went to the other state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, non­prof­its and schools.

The money pays for such ba­sics as up­grades to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sewer fa­cil­i­ties and fences to limit chem­i­cal runoff from farms — ef­forts that have re­sulted in clearer wa­ter and the re­turn of sea grasses crit­i­cal to the sur­vival of fish.

Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said the elim­i­na­tion of EPA cleanup funds is the lat­est Trump pro­posal that would wreak havoc on the state. From the en­try ban sus­pend­ing the ad­mis­sion of new refugees to a health-care bill that would leave hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents unin­sured, he said in an in­ter­view, “this man is a one-man wreck­ing crew to the econ­omy of Vir­ginia.”

Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan (R) de­clined to join the cho­rus of op­po­si­tion to Trump’s bud­get pro­posal, not­ing that it is up to Congress to pass a bud­get and that the cuts out­lined by the ad­min­is­tra­tion may never come to pass.

But his spokesman said Fri­day that Hogan “has in­vested more than $3 bil­lion in ef­forts to pro­tect and re­store the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and will re­main a fierce ad­vo­cate go­ing for­ward. He will al­ways fight to project our state’s most im­por­tant nat­u­ral as­set.”

Ad­vo­cates say that a re­stored bay would gen­er­ate a $130 bil­lion eco­nomic boon to the wa­ter­shed states by 2025, the end of the cur­rent phase of the pro­gram.

The 18 mil­lion res­i­dents who live in the wa­ter­shed in­clude “old guys who have been fish­ing in the bay for years,” and a lot of them voted for the pres­i­dent, said McAuliffe, who is chair­man of a six-state coun­cil that over­sees the bay. “I don’t think he has any idea what he has stepped into on this one.”

Push­back came not only from pre­dictable Trump foes such as McAuliffe. Four House Repub­li­cans — Vir­ginia Reps. Rob Wittman, Bar­bara Com­stock and Scott W. Tay­lor and Mary­land Rep. Andy Har­ris — last week re­it­er­ated their op­po­si­tion to cleanup cuts.

Even be­fore re­ports sur­faced that the ad­min­is­tra­tion planned to elim­i­nate the es­tu­ary cleanup pro­gram, they had joined 12 Democrats in signing a Feb. 23 let­ter urg­ing Trump to con­tinue fund­ing bay restora­tion ef­forts.

And an aide to Rep. Bob Good­latte (R-Va.), the se­nior Repub­li­can in the Vir­ginia del­e­ga­tion and the pow­er­ful chair­man of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, said the con­gress­man also has con­cerns about elim­i­nat­ing the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pro­gram.

In an in­ter­view in Wittman’s Capi­tol Hill of­fice, which is painted aqua and dec­o­rated with blue fish and trout he caught in the bay, Wittman cred­ited the EPA pro­gram with re­new­ing oys­ter, crab and fish pop­u­la­tions — and said he will fight for fed­eral fund­ing to stay at cur­rent lev­els.

“I think it would be a big mis­take to walk away from this at the mag­ni­tude that this has and still ex­pect that we’re go­ing to make the same progress in clean­ing up the bay,” said Wittman, who lives on a Ch­e­sa­peake trib­u­tary and is the father of a water­man.

Not ev­ery­one was alarmed by the White House pro­posal. Rep. H. Mor­gan Grif­fith (R-Va.) cheered the pos­si­bil­ity of slash­ing the EPA’s bot­tom line. Trump’s plan would cut 31 per­cent of the agency’s bud­get and 3,200 po­si­tions.

“I am hope­ful that the cuts will come to the out-of-con­trol reg­u­la­tory di­vi­sions of the EPA . . . while pre­serv­ing their core func­tion of help­ing com­mu­ni­ties pre­serve clean wa­ter,” he said in a state­ment Fri­day, not­ing that he had not yet re­viewed spe­cific cuts.

Grif­fith rep­re­sents a ru­ral south­west Vir­ginia dis­trict — part of which ex­tends into the Ch­e­sa­peake wa­ter­shed. Ear­lier this year he spear­headed the re­vival of a rule al­low­ing law­mak­ers to drop the pay of in­di­vid­ual fed­eral work­ers to as lit­tle as $1.

But for bay ad­vo­cates who were wary of the ap­point­ment of EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, the bud­get was con­fir­ma­tion of their worst fears.

As Ok­la­homa at­tor­ney gen­eral in 2014, Pruitt joined a le­gal chal­lenge to the cleanup pro­gram, ar­gu­ing that only states — not the EPA — had the au­thor­ity to con­trol pol­lu­tion lev­els in the bay.

The law­suit failed. And at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in Jan­uary, un­der ques­tion­ing by Sen. Ben­jamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Pruitt said the bay restora­tion part­ner­ship “should be com­mended and cel­e­brated.”

Still, dis­trust of Pruitt has lin­gered.

“It’s not what they say, it’s what they do. And this is what they’re try­ing to do,” Russ Bax­ter, Vir­ginia’s deputy sec­re­tary of nat­u­ral re­sources for the bay, said Thurs­day, adding that Vir­ginia agen­cies already strug­gle to bal­ance their bud­gets and can­not af­ford to cover the fed­eral share of the bay cleanup if the pro­gram evap­o­rates.

In Vir­ginia, the push­back to Trump’s bud­get pro­posal was swift. Con­ser­va­tion groups and state law­mak­ers on Satur­day joined McAuliffe’s wife, Dorothy, and bay ad­vo­cate Pam Northam — wife of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is run­ning for gov­er­nor — to protest the pro­posed cut at a rally by a Wil­liams­burg creek that flows into the bay.

Vir­ginia Democrats on Fri­day called on Trump to forgo week­ends at his Palm Beach re­sort, Mar-a-Lago, and use the sav­ings to tax­pay­ers to cover the bay bud­get. That same day, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who sits on the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, joined Cardin, Vir­ginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, and other Demo­cratic sen­a­tors from wa­ter­shed states in a let­ter op­pos­ing the cuts.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who took part in a rally out­side the EPA on Wed­nes­day, said the lob­by­ing strat­egy in­volves “be­ing as noisy as we can through what­ever means we can.”

“I frankly don’t want the ‘de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state,’ ” he said, quot­ing White House chief strate­gist Stephen K. Bannon.

Beyer said law­mak­ers will de­pend on Repub­li­cans — and es­pe­cially se­nior mem­bers of the ap­pro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tees — to lever­age Congress’s power of the purse to pro­tect the bay.

That means the pres­sure is on Tay­lor, a Vir­ginia Beach Repub­li­can who talked him­self onto the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee this year as the only fresh­man mem­ber.

He grew up on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore, catch­ing crabs with chicken necks on a string, and touted the bay as a lo­cal eco­nomic driver as well as a na­tional trea­sure.

Wittman, the Vir­ginia Repub­li­can whose son is a water­man, once wrote a 532-page dis­ser­ta­tion about what drives shell­fish pro­grams.

Pol­i­tics — not science — was at the top of the list.

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Boaters on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay near An­napo­lis. Sup­port­ers of the cleanup say cut­ting funds threat­ens tourism and recre­ation in­come.

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