‘Inconvenient Truth’: Without ‘Bold Measures’ the Chesapeake Bay Is in Dire Trouble (Pt 1/2)

Leading Bay activists take on Big Ag, developers, politicians and establishment environmental orgs, warning the Bay is dying while they’re talking

'Inconvenient Truth': Without 'Bold Measures' the Chesapeake Bay Is in Dire Trouble (Pt 1/2)

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.

The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the Chesapeake Bay’s rating for its health fell from C- to D+. Why? Because of the massive assault from record rainfall that poured pollution–more than usual–into the bay. Well, the reality and historical context are unfortunately much more nuanced, dire, and ominous than that. The rains did not help now, but they are not the cause of the disastrous condition the Bay faces.

Our guest wrote an op ed in the Baltimore Sun that was taken from a longer report that outlines why all the goals for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay have not been met. They outlined historically what happened over the last 35 years, and the lack of political will statewide and nationally, to fear of regulations and the overwhelming power of industry, corporations, and corporate farming. Then they clearly outline what must be done. The authors join us this afternoon. Gerald Winegrad, who has spent the last 50 years fighting for the Chesapeake Bay, and served in the Maryland State Senate as chair of the environment and Chesapeake Bay committee; Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Waterkeeper and the steward of the seventh generation African-American family farm in Prince George’s County here in Maryland; and Kathy Phillips, who is the Assateague Coastkeeper and executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, who’s taken on polluters and the chicken industry for years now. And we welcome them all to The Real News. Good to have you with us.

Thanks.

KATHY PHLLIPS: Thanks, Mark.

MARC STEINER: So, Fred, let me turn to you first. I know your time is limited today, and you have a lot going on where you’re teaching. Talk about, well, what prompted the three of you to get together, to put this piece together. What motivated all of that?

FRED TUTMAN: Well, I think the three of us have been colleagues for some years, and we’ve fought some tough battles together. And I think we collectively agree that fighting is, quite frankly, what it takes. We’re not going to educate our way to a cleaner Chesapeake Bay. We’re concerned about the leadership, or the trend, or the direction that the movement is going. It’s a movement that largely seems to want to appease pollution, rather than to enforce and attack it at its source. And frankly, it’s a movement that needs a stronger toolbox and a better reality check on how much we’re not succeeding. I heard a guy once say to me that we haven’t totally failed saving the Bay. We simply haven’t succeeded to the extent we might. Well, clean water is either clean or it isn’t. I mean, and it’s disingenuous to blame this on the weather because weather is a foreseeable phenomena. I mean, the truth is these waterways are in trouble, and we need a much stronger regimen in order to attack those root problems.

I think the prevailing leadership of the existing movement–and remind you, leadership sets the tone for the rest of the movement. If its primary toolbox is to appease and make friends for the Bay, and write reports about it, and you know, do rain barrels–all of which are really good things, but they’re not tantamount to a successful movement to actually bring these rivers back to health. So it’s time to blow the whistle on that, it’s time to draw attention to that. Because people are confused about it. I meet people every day, and they can’t answer that simple question, is the water better or worse? And I’m telling you now, it’s probably not as good as it needs to be. Certainly not as good as it needs to be.

MARC STEINER: Right. I think this is important as well because of what I said earlier, that in the Sun, the piece written by the reporters in the Sun, were putting the failure, there the drop in the health of the bay to D+ at the hands of the rainfall, this massive rainfall that Maryland has as experienced this last year, which also has to do with climate change and which we can talk about another day. But that’s not the reality of why this happened. Before I come back to you, Fred, before you have to run, I’m going to go to Gerald Winegrad. Gerald, you’ve been in this for a long time. And I remember, being a little bit older myself, in 1983 when the Chesapeake Bay Commission came together and set these incredible goals to clean the Bay. You were part of that. And so in these 35 years, just very quickly, kind of what happened? The goals were–if they had followed the dictums that they set up in 1983, the Bay would be in much better shape than it is today.

GERALD WINEGRAD: Well, the original Bay Agreement in 1983 in December, signed in Virginia–there were 700 people there. U.S. senators; Jacques Cousteau was one of the keynote speakers. And we had great enthusiasm, but the first Bay Agreement was only about a third of a page long with all the signatures of the governors of the Bay states, and the head of the EPA, and the mayor of Washington, D.C.

So when I was there we all had this shiny bright enthusiasm in 1983 under the leadership of Governor Hughes that we would put together the teamwork. And Ronald Reagan, believe it or not, was the one that mentioned the restoration of the Bay in the State of the Union Address in January 1984, and funded $30 million over three years to make the program work, and put together the Bay program under the EPA.

So eventually there were very specific goals set, but not initially. And those goals were set specifically later on under previous agreements, but that was all voluntary. And over the decades the states failed to meet these goals and these agreements. Harshly failed. And no penalties were assessed by the EPA, even though the Bay’s waters remained in violation of the Clean Water Act. Basic standards for clean water. And so finally, the EPA, under a lawsuit settlement, forced the states with mandatory reductions in key pollutants, the nutrients that enriched the waters and deprive oxygen in water, and kill our living resources, and smother oyster beds of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are nutrients, and sediment, dirt, that smothers our living organisms. They set goals for every–not goals, but hard caps for each jurisdiction in the Bay; all the way to New York, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, District of Columbia. And they had exact poundage down for the settlement, for the nitrogen and phosphorus. Each state was allowed–broken down even by counties.

And that was set in 2010. The states knew this was coming, because they already had numeric goals. They agreed to under a previous agreement in 2000, and they failed to meet those. Now they’re supposed to meet these goals by 2017, two years ago, or face penalties. And the states failed really radically poorly in the terms of nitrogen, one of the key pollutants, the most expensive to get rid of. They were only halfway towards the goal that was set. And the law means that EPA was supposed to take actions. And under both President Obama and this current president they failed to take any action to penalize the recalcitrant states.

And so now we’re in this twilight zone with the Trump administration undercutting all our laws, trying to totally defund the Bay cleanup effort and stop all enforcement of where we’re seeing our living resources die out and where we’re seeing so many problems in the bay.

MARC STEINER: So, Kathy–I’m going to Kathy here, before I go back to Fred. And I just want to be clear for our viewers that when we mention these states we’re talking about the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And that watershed goes all the way up to New York State, through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. Did I leave anybody out?

KATHY PHLLIPS: And Washington, D.C.

MARC STEINER: And Washington, D.C. Thank you, Kathy. Sorry. And so that’s–when we talk about the other states, they’re all responsible for what’s happening here in the Chesapeake Bay, because even though we have our state boundaries, those are political boundaries. They have nothing to do with the realities of existence when it comes to our our bays and waters and waterways.

So let’s talk a bit about the politics of this. And Kathy, I’ll start with you. I want to go to Fred and we’ll come back to Gerald. The politics of–what happened? Why, after–whether it’s been 17 years since 2000, or whether it’s been 35 years since 1983, and everything in between. Why haven’t we been able to meet these goals? What’s the politics that’s blocking the health of the Bay? Because it’s politics, in many ways.

KATHY PHLLIPS: It’s just a lack of true leadership, and the willingness of our elected leaders to take a hard line, and take a stance that may not be that popular. I realize that our politicians need to be–you know, they desire to be reelected. So they need to make many segments of their constituency happy. But unfortunately, what happens to the Bay, you know, it doesn’t have that same voice. It doesn’t have the voice of of the industrial lobbyists, or the development lobbyists. And so it just kind of sits back there and has to take whatever decision is made by our elected leaders. And they are our elected leaders, and we vote them in. And you know, certainly myself, I’m sure Gerald, Fred, you, many others, we elected these leaders to help protect our bay and clean our bay.

I grew up with in the ’50s and ’60s sailing on the Bay with my dad, and always enjoyed being able to just jump overboard, anytime I wanted to, whatever creek we were in, wherever we were, and go for a swim. I would never do that now, and I wouldn’t advise anybody else to do that now. And that is really sad that it has been so many years, and we continue to decline. And I just put it straight back on our elected leaders, that they have not had the strength, the fortitude, the determination to clean this bay up.

And I also … it upsets me as an executive director of an environmental advocacy organization that time and time again I watch other environmental organizations instead of demanding and saying here here’s what has to be done, and so let’s meet that goal, more often than not it’s like, well, OK. How about if we just–we’ll cut this back, and we’ll cut this back a little bit, and we’ll start from here. We’ll start from the middle instead. And now when you begin to negotiate with everyone that you have to negotiate on to enforce these regulations, or put new regulations in, now you’re starting from the middle and working downward. And that’s–that’s just not the way to fix a problem. And it’s very obvious that it’s not the way to fix the Chesapeake Bay.

MARC STEINER: So, Fred, talk a bit about your perspective on the politics of this.

FRED TUTMAN: So there’s an irony here. I’m actually old enough to remember back in the ’70s and ’80s when nobody had the money to do environmental work, because we were all volunteers. There was a joke that you had to have a spouse with a real job if you wanted to fight for the environment. And fighting is exactly what it takes, I mean, to be honest.

Now what we have is an enormous complex of money raisers–in fact, if you look at the largest environmental organizations working on the Bay in the region, the folks at the top are the most adept fundraisers. Not necessarily the best scientists or the best, you know, program folks. So what you have now is a large cadre of professional folks who work on things that don’t necessarily influence the cleanup of these resources. It’s possible to have a great career, and to retire, and get a pension now never having really cleaned up much of anything. In fact, note that I don’t think we’ve cleaned up a single tributary in the Chesapeake Bay in about 40 years of trying. Not one. But what you really got is an institutionalization of these problems, where the professionals are in charge and money raising has become a premium.

But the results orientation is something that the public needs to hold everybody’s feet to the fire. It’s not just the politicians. It’s also the low expectations that people have that you can actually clean any of this stuff up, and a movement that takes credit for virtually any sign, any hopeful sign, as a rousing success. I’ve actually sat in meetings at the end of abysmal legislative sessions where the environmentalists are trying to convince one another how we can take credit for a major success, even though we haven’t had any. And they’re well-intentioned. I’m not saying nobody wants to clean up the Bay. We all do have–we all have the best of intentions. But I think what’s emerged from this is basically a movement that doesn’t really have a toolbox, because it relies heavily on appeasement, on corporate funding, on various other things that don’t really hit the nail on the head as far as where the root problems are, which is key.

It’s got to be enforcement. You’ve got to make somebody mad if you’re going to clean these rivers up. You can’t make everybody happy. Everyone doesn’t go home singing a Coke commercial because we, you know, because we cleaned up the Bay. I guarantee you somebody is going to get good and mad, and we need advocates who are prepared to make folks mad to do that. I’m sorry to say it, and it sounds contentious. I’m a pacifist. But there it is.

MARC STEINER: I mean, it seems when you look at the reality of what’s happened to the Bay–and a lot of it came from the study that you all did. It outline pretty clearly what’s going on. And when you look at the abysmal state of the of the oyster beds in the Bay, that are down to almost nothing, which you can describe to us. The female crab population. We were supposed to have this growth in grasses, aquatic grasses in the Bay that has not happened. We tout like it has happened when it hasn’t. And so it really is in a very dangerous place. And what we don’t talk about a lot are the dead zones that are taking place inside the Chesapeake Bay. We think that’s happening somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, or some other place–or the GUlf of Mexico. But it’s happening in the Chesapeake Bay, right in the back door of this studio here, where we broadcast from. So let’s talk a bit about that. Go ahead, Fred. You were going to say what?

FRED TUTMAN: So, rIght, by downplaying the true condition of the Bay you short circuit the willingness of people to do more. That’s actually a central tragedy here. We really have to bear down here, because we’re failing. And I think it’s a message people aren’t really getting. Or if you want to say it another way, say it nicely, we’re not succeeding. So in order for us to turn that tide around, people have to understand what the true state and the true urgency is to save these resources. And right now they’re not hearing that message. What they’re hearing is hopeful messages designed to raise enthusiasm and to raise money, as simple as that.

MARC STEINER: Gerald, you were about to say what?

GERALD WINEGRAD: Well, look, 35 years ago when we all gathered much younger, and these expectations were not met because we did a lot of good things, we did the easy things first. And some of them don’t seem so easy, now, in retrospect. Like, I sponsored the ban on phosphates in detergents, which had already been passed around the Great Lakes, to get phosphorus out of detergents that would come out into the Bay watershed. And that took two years, and it led to other states. When Maryland passed it the other states enacted it, as well, surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. But that was an easy one. The easier one, too, even though it cost billions of dollars collectively, was taking out phosphorus and nitrogen, the key nutrients and the other bacteria and organisms and wastewater, human wastewater effluent and industrial wastewater. We spent billions on that, the so-called flush tax in Maryland, where everybody now paying $60 a year into a fund that’s going to generate over $1.7 billion with bonds to clean up our largest wastewater treatment plants. That’s been a success.

So what I want to say is that, one, we don’t want to just be seen as negative in this article. Some of this was cut out. But there have been successes; that we have grown by 5 million people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed of 64,000 square miles. We’ve grown from 13.5 million to over 18 million, approaching 18.5 million. Despite that, if we hadn’t had those efforts, we would be in much worse shape. But this next point is that if I were to write a nightmare scenario in 1983 for what would happen in the Bay, it would look like it is now, with people afraid to go in the water. Warnings by health departments all over the region after rains a half inch or more, don’t go in the water because of the pollutants washing off of the streets, and because of the danger of flesh eating diseases that I’ve documented for people around the state of Maryland and state of Virginia.

So the point is that we’re in a nightmare scenario. That’s why we entitle the article Code Red for the Bay. And Fred hit on this and Kathy hit on it. The lack of political will, and the political will from the EPA all the way down into the states and into the elected officials, whether at the state level, or whether in the governor’s office, or whether at local county commissioners or county council office that control land use, is due to the lack of political organization and movement by the environmental community. There’s a stasis that has set in. The largest group that we haven’t mentioned is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with over $25 million budget. They don’t do any political work in the sense of elections at all; they will not touch that. And secondly, it’s because these groups have not formulated correct movements on public policy.

And the biggest lack is to go after agriculture. We have the chicken industry eating all of our lunches in this state, literally. And they’re not just chicken sandwiches. This is literally dumping 400,000 tons a year from 304 million chickens in Maryland alone, concentrated on the Eastern Shore. Much of that, 80 percent or more, is going right back on the land, whether the land can tolerate it or not, contaminating our groundwater as well as going into the surface water. The environmental community led by CBF, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, fails year after year to even propose any legislative initiatives, regulation initiatives. And they’re still undermining the efforts by not going after agriculture. And it’s the same with Cathy Phillips on the coastal bays. And secondly, the one area of pollution that has increased, even after they signed agreements in blood and with sanctions proposed by the EPA, is stormwater runoff from urban areas all over the state because of new development and not retrofitting existing areas. So we’ve done a good job on point pollution, the pipes coming from industries and coming from sewage treatment. Very good job. But other than that, the success is really, really limited, and in storm water and agriculture it’s failing.

KATHY PHLLIPS: And Gerald brings up a good point there about what we call point sources, which is water pollution, discharges coming out of a pipe, and what our environmental agencies call nonpoint source. Which is, for instance, they say that agricultural pollution is a nonpoint source, because it’s not a discharge directly out of a pipe. But the truth of the matter is, certainly on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, every single one of our ag fields is intersected by ditches that are dug out of the farm fields originally. Was to help drain the fields, because our land is so low and so wet on the Eastern Shore that it was impossible or difficult to grow crops without putting the ditching in, and and letting the water slightly under the ground, have something to drain into and drain out.

So what we have on the Eastern Shore is basically a huge system of piping. It just isn’t a physical pipe. It’s these ditches. And we have in the last, what, 10 years, started to try to address that problem of especially phosphorous pollution getting out into the Bay, out into the rivers and then into the Bay, because all of these ditches drain to a bigger ditch, which drains to a bigger ditch, which drains eventually to one of our tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. And we are trying to eliminate the application of animal manures on a great many fields on the Eastern Shore, because they are already so saturated from 20, 50, 60, 70 years of animal manure being applied to the fields for fertile, you know, to fertilize crops. But we’re now in a system of agriculture on the Eastern Shore that is not the little family farm where they were growing fruits and vegetables, and had some chickens, and had some horses, and some cattle. And yes, those manures went back onto the farm, and were used up by various crops, diverse crops that they were growing that used up the phosphorous, used up the nitrogen. And we’re not in that system of agriculture anymore. It’s corn, soybeans, and chicken. That is all we have on the Eastern Shore.

MARC STEINER: Industrial farming, is what people call it.

KATHY PHLLIPS: Industrial farming. And there is no–there is so little regulation on that that we end up with basically point source pollution coming into the Chesapeake Bay. But because it’s not technically point source it’s not regulated like point source.

MARC STEINER: So, Fred–let me go back to Fred Tutman here. Because the next segment, folks, we’re going to really tackle what we can do, and we’re trying to outline what the issue is now so we can really tackle in the next segment what it is that can be done to change this. But the politics of this, Fred, in part has to do–let’s just take the stormwater runoff tax for a moment, that was passed and then whittled down to become a local initiative that each locality could do what they wanted to, and then was hit as a rain tax by the governor, Hogan and others, and then destroyed. It was done with. That stormwater runoff tax was supposed to end up easing the pollution in the Bay because we can do things to ameliorate the runoff with the money that was used from these taxes. So talk a bit about the politics of that. And then we’ll talk about the politics of chicken.

FRED TUTMAN: I’m not quite sure that by giving something a budget you necessarily fix the problem, as much as funds are important and useful. You know, we have a whole lot of big, omnibus national campaigns. The War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Poverty. They all have a budget, and they’re all suffering. But none of them are really succeeding as far as eradicating the problem they’ve been delegated to solve.

What I’m arguing is not that we don’t need to raise resources, but we have to be very astute about where those resources are applied, and apply them to things that actually make a difference and that actually work. But simply by virtue of giving a budget to something does not–it makes a fundraising exercise out of something that really requires a lot of spine. And spine is free, actually. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to get really good and outraged in order to pursue an obdurate course towards winning these battles. But as long as people are content with writing checks, as long as they’re not really outraged by the problem and are being encouraged, like I said, by the leadership to not–we’ve got this. We’ve got this covered, just send money. All right? What you really need is what I call constructive outrage.

And the low expectations that I referred to earlier. If people really understood how bad off these resources are, and were good and mad about it. And that’s what it took in civil rights, that’s what it takes in women’s rights, that’s what it takes in virtually any struggle. And I put the environmental struggle to save the Bay in the same category. This is a struggle, right. You’re not going to get it for the asking, you’re not going to get it on a 9-to-5 job, and you’re not going to get paid to change the world. I’m sorry to break it to you. You’re going to have to struggle to get that. And I think that’s what we have to encourage, and we have to mentor, and we have to create advocacy. Not just education, but advocacy. They’re really not the same thing. If you confuse education with advocacy, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. They’re not the same model. You think the same resources that wrecked the Bay is going to be used to clean it up? You’re kidding yourself. There’s a world of difference between the people who want to hold feet to the fire and get reparations and make good as opposed to people who would rather be funded by these corporate interests that are the very same ones wrecking the Chesapeake Bay. That’s what I mean by the toolbox is really defective here.

MARC STEINER: So you’re seeing a lot of contradictions taking place here, even within the environmental movement.

FRED TUTMAN: Certainly. As Gerald pointed out, the chicken industry has a lot to answer for. And yet the chicken industry funds a lot of interesting and useful stuff on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; universities and colleges, and so forth. And likewise, all of these looters, corporate ones, anyway, have a different face that they show to the public. I think people are reluctant to anchor that face because they think, well, are you going to give up the free trips on the river? People like free stuff. I’m saying what these guys give you is nothing compared, first of all, to what’s required to clean up these resources. And what’s more, frankly, what we’ve found is in a court of law you’ll get a hell of a lot more from them than you ever will from a grant. End of story.

MARC STEINER: And on that note–you’re hearing Fred Tutman, who is the Patuxent Riverkeeper, and we’re also here with Kathy Phillips, who is the sea Coastkeeper, and Joe Winegrad, a former state senator who’s been fighting for the Bay for many, many, many years. And so we’re going to continue this conversation in our next segment. We’re going to tackle more about why this is so difficult to do, to clean up the Bay, because the Chesapeake Bay is emblematic of things happening around the country and around the globe when it comes to why it’s so difficult to fight for environmental standards anywhere we live. And we’re also going to talk about the ideas that they posited in this op ed about what to do about it. So you don’t want to miss that part, and we’ll come back with our guests here–we’ll be back in our next segment with our guests talking about a bit more about why, who is in the way, and what to do about it.