After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The High Cost of a Dirty Bay

(Posted by W. Tayloe Murphy Jr.)

Twenty-five years ago, in a speech to the Virginia Seafood Council, I reminded the audience that when it comes to pollution, there truly is no free lunch. Last year, when states were submitting their Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, amidst a deluge of complaints about the fed’s heavy-handedness, I found myself repeating my warning in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But it seems like some folks have yet to get the message. So here I am again.

For years, I told the group back in 1985, we have cheerfully operated under the assumption that we could all operate outside the laws of nature and economics. Thus, in the “good old days,” cities disposed of their inadequately treated sewage for “free.” Factories poured industrial wastes into the Bay and its tributaries at little or no cost—to them.

However, I said, even though the costs of such activities did not show upon any ledger book, they were in fact being paid for, with heavy interest.

The downstream municipality forced to find another water supply, the waterman facing condemned oyster grounds and dwindling stocks, the tourist campground and charter businesses whose customers were driven away by polluted water and depleted fishing—all of them picked up the tab for these “free” activities.

I said that we need to keep this in mind as programs to protect the Bay begin to pinch powerful special interests. As complaints about costs come in from this group or that group and as legislators begin to backpedal, fearing the reaction from various constituencies, we need to remember that each exemption and each exception simply transfers the cost from someone whose responsibility it should be to someone else—most often to the individual whose livelihood depends on a healthy bay.

Each time this happens we grant a subsidy to the favored group just as surely as if we took money from the public coffers and handed it over. Only, this type of subsidy is even more dangerous than the monetary kind, because it is paid in a currency that is not replaceable—the very life and health of the Bay.

Thus, for those whose livelihoods depend on the Bay, this type of subsidy is fatal.

And although there’s widespread consensus on the need to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, we keep getting stuck when it comes to demanding substantive changes by those most responsible for its degradation.

Today, the U.S. EPA and the Bay states are part of an aggressive Bay cleanup effort that calls upon everyone—farmers, cities, developers, factories, wastewater treatment plants, homeowners—to reduce pollution so the Bay can recover from decades of abuse.

The strategy levels the playing field for everyone responsible for the Bay’s pollution problems and demands action and accountability from all stakeholders.

Yet even as Bay states were submitting plans and goals for meeting science-based water quality standards, farm leaders, builders, and some local and state government officials were already complaining about having to pay more to reduce their pollution. They seem oblivious to the thousands of citizens who already are paying the price for someone else’s “free lunch”:

  • The number of Bay watermen declined from 14,000 to 1,500 between 1993 and 2009. Thousands of watermen have sold their boats and gear because they no longer can earn a living on the water.
  • Diseases and poor water quality have decimated the Bay’s native oyster population, a loss to the economies of Virginia and Maryland estimated at more than $4 billion.
  • Despite recent comebacks, the bay’s crabbing industry lost 4,500 jobs between 1998 and 2006.

Just as Americans have rightly insisted that BP pay the cost of cleaning up its pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, we must insist that polluters pay the cost of cleaning up their pollution in the Bay. Not to do so is unfair, unsustainable, and, as history has shown, a policy for failure.

I’m a longtime Bay advocate. While I am excited about the genuine momentum of an unprecedented state-EPA partnership that promises finally to save the Bay, I am troubled because I fear the complaints we are again hearing from special interests may frustrate the Bay’s best and, perhaps, last chance for restoration.

I urge Bay state leaders to stop handing out “free lunches” to the polluters and hold them accountable. A truly restored Chesapeake Bay will redound to everyone’s benefit, boosting jobs, the economy, and quality of life. Twenty-five years hence, let us not be recycling old speeches; let us instead be celebrating a clean Bay.

W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. served 20 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, was chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, is a former Virginia secretary of natural resources, and serves on the board of trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Contact him at

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