A voice for Chesapeake Bay has a grim message

By Rex Springston
December 28, 2009 , Richmond Times-Dispatch

People have a basic human right to clean water, according to Ernst.

"I think you can really make a case that this is the civil-rights issue of our generation," said Ernst, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Ernst, 39, emerged as a fresh voice on the bay in 2003 with the publication of his book "Chesapeake Bay Blues." He followed that last month with his second book on the topic, "Fight for the Bay."

His message is grim: Decades of efforts to restore the bay have failed because politicians, government officials and environmentalists have treated polluters as partners and sought their compliance mainly through ineffective voluntary programs.

He calls that approach "light-green environmentalism," and says what’s needed is a "dark-green" approach that forces cleanups.

"I’m saying you and I have a right to clean water, and nobody has a right to diminish that.

"It doesn’t matter how expensive it is, it doesn’t matter how inconvenient it is. . . . Your property rights end when they pollute our public waters."

Howard has become "the foremost independent scholar of the Chesapeake Bay and its needs," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato.

Howard received his doctorate in political science in 2000 from U.Va., where he served as Sabato’s head teaching assistant. Now, Ernst is a senior scholar at U.Va.’s Center for Politics, which Sabato directs.

The once-bountiful bay suffers from pollution that washes off farms and developed land and also flows from sewage-treatment plants. That pollution creates low-oxygen "dead zones" that are unfit for fish.

Ernst says the bay also suffers from a "political dead zone" — a condition in which politicians do little more than pay lip service to the bay, and environmentalists are too submissive to fight for real change.

L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, called "political dead zone" a "catchy zinger that’ll generate a headline or two" but one that fails to appreciate the complexity of a restoration involving six states, the federal government, hundreds of local governments and scores of interested parties.

"An honest accounting would acknowledge that we are about halfway to the restoration goals that were set a couple of decades ago," Bryant said.

Ernst replied, "The goal wasn’t to do better than doing nothing. The goal was to restore the Chesapeake Bay, and by any measure it has failed."

A native of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Ernst lives outside Annapolis with his wife and three small children. He considers himself an environmentalist, but he directs some of his harshest criticism at environmental groups.

"One of the problems with the environmental community is it is filled with liberals. . . . I believe that it’s a liberal assumption that people will do the right thing if you ask them nicely, which is what we did for 30 years."

He added, "It’s conservative to say that the pollution you make on your land and your property, you’re responsible for. . . . It’s conservative to say we need to conserve our resources."

Ernst is particularly critical of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the dominant environmental group in the bay region with about 165 employees and a $21 million annual budget. The "Save the Bay" group was formed in 1967 — "a losing record for 40 years," Ernst said.

Many polluting industries endorse candidates and give them money. But the bay foundation and most other environmental groups choose not to.

"They are fighting with one hand tied behind their back," Ernst said, "and they are doing it voluntarily." (One exception is the politically active Sierra Club.)

In response, bay foundation President William C. Baker said toxic pollution has dropped during the foundation’s watch, while federal funding to help farmers reduce pollution has increased. Also, the group has filed a suit that seeks to force the federal government to get tougher on bay pollution.

"History has shown we have accomplished a great deal. . . . In many respects, the bay is better off today," Baker said. "I would agree we haven’t succeeded to the level that we all think we need to; that’s why we are still fighting."

President Barack Obama announced in May a renewed federal commitment to restoring the bay. Federal officials, working with the bay states, are devising a cleanup plan that could result in tough new requirements for farmers, builders and local governments.

Not surprisingly, those interests are pushing back.

"The bay’s gotten in the condition it’s in over the last 400 years," said Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau. "We’re talking about 25 years

[of cleanup]. I can’t imagine that you’re going to turn a light switch on and all of a sudden things are going to start getting better. It’s got to be a gradual approach."

With a pro-bay president in office and Congress expected to soon take up bay-cleanup legislation, it’s crucial to put a lid on pollution before politicians get distracted by elections next fall, Ernst said.

"The environmental community by my estimation has six months to pass meaningful bay legislation. Otherwise, they are going to have squandered the opportunity of a lifetime."  

Contact Rex Springston at (804) 649-6453 or
rspringston@timesdispatch.com .

nowBuzz up!