It was standing room only last night at the town hall meeting in Annapolis, and the crowd was hot. Feelings ran high.
This forum wasn't about health insurance reform, but about restoring the Chesapeake Bay. People attending were concerned, worried, even upset. Voices were raised at times, but no one got shouted down, not even the representative of the Obama administration who spoke. Not even when he suggested that more regulations, not fewer, may be needed to bring the bay back to vitality.
"We have to look at game-changing solutions,'' said J. Charles Fox, pictured at right, special advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the bay.
Fox drew applause. The crowd of about 350 there weren't demanding that the federal government keep its hands off their bay. They wanted more, not less, federal muscle to stem a rising tide of pollution from population growth and development. Speakers complained of lack of local and state enforcement of laws and regulations to prevent sediment and stormwater pollution. and an unwillingness to crack down on illegal waterfront building and clearing.
"Where are you guys?" demanded Paul Spadaro of the Magothy River Association, which has waged a long-running and so-far fruitless legal battle over a home built on Little Dobbin Island in the river. Though environmentalists contend the development is counter to the state's Critical Area law meant to protect the bay from harmful waterfront building, Anne Arundel County has allowed the residence, in some cases issuing after-the-fact approvals for work already done.
Others complained about waterfront housing development in Annapolis, which they say has stripped all the vegetation to the water's edge on a tributary of the Severn River.
"Every time it rains, streams of sediment pour into Saltworks Creek," complained Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper. He complained that Anne Arundel County improperly approved the development with inadequate runoff pollution controls, and now won't come inspect the damage. The Severn, he noted, flows through the state's capital on its way to the bay.
"If we can't clean up the capital river of the state of Maryland, what the hell are we doing here?" he challenged.
Voices were raised from elsewhere around the state, too. One speaker warned about pollution-laden sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, waiting for the next big storm to flush it into the bay and kill the rebounding underwater grasses there.
Another warned about a proposal to lay power lines under the bay to furnish enough electricity to the Delmarva Peninsula for hundreds of thousands of more homes than are currently there. Others voiced concerns over the state's approval of a new nuclear reactor proposed at Calvert Cliffs, and over the state's policy of killing mute swans to protect bay grasses and other waterfowl.
But the recurring concerns were about development.
"The folks who are in charge of local land use and zoning are not listening," said Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. She contended that Prince George's County is approving virtually any development proposed in a "diabolical quest to get a freaking Nordstroms," the upscale department store.
"If the bay is going to be saved, the federal government has got to be willing to draw a line in the sand," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the meeting's organizers, who spoke before the crowd got its chance.
Baker, whose Annapolis-based environmental group has sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to do more to restore the bay, argued that the federal government needs to block any new growth around the bay until the pollution already fouling the water has been cleaned up. At the least, the federal government needs to threaten a moratorium to get states to act, he said.
The meeting at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Annapolis was called by environmental groups to give the public a chance to tell the federal government what it ought to be doing to restore the bay. President Obama issued an executive order in May directing federal agencies to take a greater role in leading the cleanup effort, and he gave them until Sept. 9 to come up with ideas for doing that. He and Brad Heavner of Environment Maryland urged the public to makes its wishes known, to give regulators "backbone,'' as another speaker put it.
Fox, EPA's representative, didn't spell out what federal officials have in mind. But he pointed out that only about 40 percent of all sources of pollution fouling the bay are regulated by any level of government.
'We have to find a way to build in more accountability," he said. Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farmland still produces about half of all the nutrient pollution fouling the bay, he noted, and there isn't enough money especially in the curent economic crisis to pay farmers to take steps to control it. He suggested more regulation of agriculture may be needed.
But the more worrisome threat, he said, is development, which continues to grow as a source of bay pollution. He said "very stringent'' new development and redevelopment standards are needed, and ways must be found to reduce stormwater pollution from existing development.
A Web site has just been set up, Fox, noted, to take public comment on the federal role in the bay restoration. You can find it here. The agencies' draft recommendations will be posted there as well when submitted on Sept. 9.
Rev. Rick Edmund, Methodist pastor for Smith Island, who was among the panel of invited speakers, reminded the audience that the stakes are high. He said, only half-jokingly, that the perspiring crowd jammed into the church, overwhelming its air conditioning, was bigger than the population of the traditional watermen's community he ministers to in the middle of the bay. Its population is a fraction of what it used to be, and only about 100 of the islanders still fish for a living.
"We need to do something if we're going to preserve someting for those that come after us,'' Edmund said. "We've tried the voluntary part - that doesn't seem to be working,'' he added, referring to the 26-year cleanup effort begun as a largely volutnary partnership between the states, the federal and local governments.
"What is going to be our legacy?" the minister asked. "What are people (in succeeding generations) going to think of what we did or didn't do for the health of the Chesapeake Bay?"