A Day of Chesapeake Bay Politics: Plenty of Harmony, Some Discord

The Chesapeake Bay is Maryland’s equivalent to mom, the flag and apple pie: Every politician is for it. And the same sentiment generally prevails in the other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of politics surrounding the stewardship of America’s largest estuary, or occasional policy differences. And they were on vivid display Tuesday. At the same time he was presiding over an annual, regional bipartisan meeting in Baltimore about the health of the Chesapeake, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) was unveiling a 2 ½-minute campaign video called “Champion of the Bay,” touting his record. The ad, full of gauzy images of the bay, Hogan high-fiving children, and TV news reports and newspaper headlines about the governor’s achievements, ended with footage of 12 seconds of sustained applause from a Hogan campaign event. Hogan on Tuesday chaired the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, which consists of leaders of the six states in the Chesapeake watershed (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia), the District of Columbia, federal officials and other stakeholders. Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s environment secretary, meets the Maryland press Tuesday after the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council in Baltimore. Photo by Josh Kurtz Hogan shared the dais with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D), Delaware Gov. John C. Carney Jr. (D), acting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the deputy mayor of Washington, D.C., environmental officials from Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, and the Republican state senator from Virginia who chairs the related Chesapeake Bay Commission. It was a veritable festival of bipartisanship, and Hogan sounded familiar themes. “I strongly believe that if we continue to embrace this spirit of bipartisan cooperation, as we have, we can and we will advance common-sense solutions to protect the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. While much of the council’s work happens at the staff level, before the public portion of the meeting, it’s still a substantive gathering. On Tuesday, the council OK’d a directive targeting agricultural runoff, but promised to offer farmers extra technical assistance to boost their conservation practices. Farmers addressed the meeting, discussing their personal and political evolution on protecting the bay. “I’m now not just a farmer, but an environmentalist,” said Trey Hill, owner of Harborview Farms, in Rock Hall, Md. The state leaders also pledged to promote environmental education and literacy programs and boost diversity goals for organizations that work on bay restoration (it was lost on no one that all nine people on the dais were white men). And they promised to address climate change with stronger mitigation measures going forward. “That’s going to be a monster issue for many years to come,” said James Tierney, the deputy commissioner for water resources at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. But there wasn’t unbridled harmony. A recent flare-up between Maryland and two upstream states along the Susquehanna River, which feeds into the bay, served as a backdrop to Tuesday’s meeting. Flooding in New York and Pennsylvania earlier late last month caused a cascade of sediment and other pollution to flow into the Chesapeake and other Maryland waterways over the crumbling Conowingo Dam in the Susquehanna, which generates hydroelectric power. Hogan and his close ally, state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), quickly blamed the two upriver states for Maryland’s sullied rivers and bays. Pennsylvania was singled out for criticism because it has lagged behind other states in the watershed when it comes to meeting EPA benchmarks for pollution reduction. “We were shocked to see the devastation that was caused,” Hogan said Tuesday. “We were obviously very frustrated.” Hogan and his allies are no doubt aware that footage of debris in the water at Annapolis City Dock and other popular tourist attractions could be used against him by political opponents, and they have moved quickly to try to get ahead of the story. The Hogan administration has also sharply criticized Exelon, the owner of the Conowingo Dam, for its role in the crisis. But the governor did not seek further confrontation Tuesday. “I think it’s very positive that we’re all here meeting today,” he said. “The fact that we have open dialogues with our upstream neighbors and with other states is a step in the right direction.” Tierney defended his state’s environmental record almost blithely. “If the water of the Chesapeake Bay would be as high quality as it is when it leaves New York State, at the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay would not be impaired,” he said. Speaking to reporters after the council meeting, Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection – who had issued a blistering statement pushing back against Hogan’s criticism last week – was also conciliatory, saying Pennsylvania was looking forward to working with its neighbors to “achieve this shared goal” of cleaning up the bay. McDonnell conceded that his state has fallen short of federal pollution guidelines, but said the recent flooding was a life-and-death crisis that state officials were confronting in real time, without giving much thought to the environmental impacts downstream. “The thing we have avoided is this blame game,” he said. Asked in an interview to assess Pennsylvania’s response, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said, “We appreciate the partnership.” He later added, “We’re going to continue to push as good teammates to accelerate their restoration effort. It’s a powerful reminder that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of debris.” No one said a word about partisan politics. McDonnell works for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D). One of the few out-of-state candidates Hogan has stumped for this election cycle is Wolf’s Republican challenger, state Sen. Scott Wagner – who has questioned the existence of climate change. Hogan last year also campaigned for Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie. But no hard feelings were evident: The two spoke warmly of each other, and Hogan was in fact unanimously reelected to be chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council for a second term – which he took as a good omen, given that four of the six governors in bay watershed states are Democrats. “I hope to have the same success 90 days from now,” Hogan joked. “We wish you well,” Northam said. Hogan’s campaign on Tuesday released a long list of steps the governor has taken to improve the health of the Chesapeake, noting that the bay is the cleanest it has been since federal officials began formally monitoring its health 33 years ago. These include: –A $4 billion state investment in bay restoration efforts. –Fully funding the Atlantic Bays Coastal Trust Fund, to the tune of almost $200 million. –Brokering a deal between farmers and environmentalists to set phosphorus management goals. –Fighting proposed federal cuts to Chesapeake Bay cleanup funding and criticizing President Trump for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate deal. The Maryland Democratic Party offered a quick rebuttal late Tuesday, noting Hogan’s veto of a clean energy bill (which the legislature overrode) and the fact that green groups sued him in 2015 for blocking regulations governing coal plant emissions. jkurtz@marylandmatters.org

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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