CBF: Dire Predictions of Builders Exaggerate Cost of Cleaning Chesapeake Bay

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By Kim Coble
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Reading newspaper stories the past few days about the life of William Donald Schaefer, I am reminded of the vision, courage and resourcefulness of the man. Even as recession hobbled the region in the 1970s, Schaefer proposed spending state and federal dollars to redevelop a blighted inner city area of abandoned warehouses and rotting piers that most people considered a lost cause, if they thought of it at all.

The Chesapeake Bay is today’s Baltimore Harbor. We face the choice of whether to restore this long-neglected feature of Maryland’s landscape and economy. To do so we will need a heart and drive similar to Schaefer’s, not fear of failure.

Maryland and other Bay states have accepted a new Bay “pollution diet” and have developed specific plans to meet that diet. Once implemented, the results will be astonishing. Instead of dead zones, beach closings and fish kills, we will have clean water to swim and fish in, and a bountiful ecosystem and a vibrant regional economy.

While I take exception with the dire conclusions of a new report from the Maryland State Builders Association that tries to predict the costs and financial impacts of the state’s pollution diet plan, I don’t dispute that we will have to spend resources over the next few decades. The economic, human health, social and other benefits of this work will far outweigh the costs. And I believe doing nothing, or delaying efforts, will exact a far greater cost.

Clearly, the intention of the Builders’ report — prepared by Sage Policy Group, Inc — is to scare us away from action, and to that aim it bends its analysis. This isn’t surprising. Regulated industries often issue reports predicting imminent catastrophe if the industry is forced to install seat belts or catalytic converters, replace CFC with other coolants, or change its practices in some other way that protects human health or the environment. We almost never see those dire predictions come true.

A significant portion of the costs the Builders' report predicts already are part of our personal or corporate budgets. We all have paid a “flush tax” for years to help upgrade our sewage treatment plants and septic systems. The Builders add that to the future tab. They inflate further by including costs we'd have to pay for regardless of the pollution diet, such as reducing runoff from our urban and suburban landscapes which is required by federal permits.

Costs likely also will come down as we adopt new, more cost-effective technologies and practices to reduce other sources of pollution. The Builders' report itself provides an example: State Highway Administration officials believe they can spend a third of what they originally estimated ($1 billion) to reduce runoff from state roads. We hear similar examples from around the Bay. In the Hampton Roads region of Virginia officials originally came up with scary estimates for their stormwater management costs into the future, but then after some thoughtful research, cut that estimate by 60 percent to a more reasonable figure. Every locality is different, but savings can be discovered everywhere.

And remember, all these costs will be spread over decades, like a mortgage, and won’t come due for some time.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation does not buy into the false dichotomy that a clean environment and a healthy economy are mutually exclusive. Rather, we see the health of our economy and the Bay closely linked. The Bay is an economic engine, and as it goes, so goes our regional economy. The total impact on the Maryland economy from recreational boating alone is estimated to be more than $2 billion annually and sustains 35,025 jobs.

But poor water quality, overfishing, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat have caused drop-offs in crab and oyster harvests and other activities. That clearly hurts the economy; Maryland and Virginia lost 4,486 crabbing related jobs and endured $640 million in losses over a decade from the crab population’s decline.

Improving the Bay will not only reopen the shucking houses, but create thousands of new jobs in construction, engineering, agriculture, landscaping and other industries as we upgrade sewage plants, install stormwater retrofit projects, buffer streams with trees, and take other measures.

If we want to move Maryland forward, we need to work together to implement programs that grow our economy and protect our environment, not simply try to scare people into believing we can’t afford a clean Bay. And we need to “Do it now,” as William Donald Schaefer would say.

Kim Coble is the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
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