WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich seldom agree, but both men called on the federal government this week to help upgrade sewage treatment plants around the Chesapeake Bay.
They differ, however, when asked whether President Bush will come through with the money when he releases his fiscal 2004 budget next week.
“The budget will be a clear indicator of what he is committed to,” said Sarbanes spokesman Jesse Jacobs. He noted that the president did not mention bay cleanup in his State of the Union address Tuesday, as Sarbanes had urged him to do.
But Ehrlich aides said they were optimistic, even though Bush faces a sluggish economy and potential war with Iraq.
“The president has always shown a commitment to the environment and he (Ehrlich) doesn’t believe that will change this year,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.
For his part, Ehrlich pledged Wednesday in his State of the State address to budget $95 million, what he called a “down payment” on upgrades at some of the state’s largest treatment plants.
“We will need to secure more dollars from the federal government in order to complete this critical task,” he said.
Environmental officials said that is an understatement.
“The cost to clean up the bay would be huge. We’re not talking millions (of dollars), we’re talking billions,” said Peter Marx, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Program. The program is a partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency and the states in the bay watershed.
The upgrades are needed to reduce the amount of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that end up in the bay, accelerating growth of algae and other organisms that can choke bay grasses, fish, oysters and crabs.
Fertilizer that runs off farms and lawns is also a serious problem for the bay, said Marx, but sewage plants are the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to cleanup efforts, because their impact is easy for engineers to measure.
There are more than 300 sewage plants in the watershed that discharge more than 500,000 gallons a day. If they all had the newest treatment technology, it would “significantly” reduce the amount of nitrogen dumped into the bay, Marx said.
Half of the plants are expected to have some degree of nutrient-reduction technology by 2010, but Maryland is already moving aggressively on its facilities, Marx said.
The state has 66 such large plants, 35 of which have some nutrient- removing technology, he said. All but one are supposed to be upgraded by 2005, with the last plant slated for improvement by 2010.
To date, the state has spent at least $225 million for such upgrades, according to the Department of the Environment.
“Maryland is ahead of the curve in every way,” Marx said.
While in Congress, Ehrlich sponsored an unsuccessful proposal for a five- year, $660 million federal program to help fund improvements to wastewater treatment plants in several states in the bay watershed. Sarbanes sponsored a similar bill in the Senate. The bills are expected to be reintroduced in the new Congress.
The president’s failure to mention the bay in his address Tuesday “disappointed” Sarbanes and Reps. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington.
“I hope the fact that the president didn’t mention it in the speech doesn’t mean it’s not one of his priorities,” Van Hollen said.
Marx said lawmakers should not read too much into what was or was not in the speech.
“I don’t recall the Chesapeake Bay being mentioned in any president’s State of the Union address. It certainly hasn’t happened since I get here,” Marx said.
But Jacobs noted that President Reagan called the bay a “special natural resource” in his 1984 State of the Union — before Marx came on board — and pledged $40 million over four years to aid clean up efforts.