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$50 million Bay fund proves hard to spend

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) - A $50 million fund to help restore the Chesapeake Bay awaits direction from lawmakers on how it should be spent, but at an initial hearing yesterday it was clear that lawmakers aren't happy with the direction of some restoration efforts and want state agencies to rethink how they might spend the money.

A panel of senators heard testimony from several agencies whose work affects Chesapeake restoration efforts. The senators are starting work on plans for a $50 million fund they created last year. Lawmakers agreed to set aside the money from a series of new taxes they passed, but they couldn't agree how to spend it.

The senators appeared no closer to consensus yesterday. One senator wanted to know why state scientists couldn't better track improvements in the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus, two top pollutants washing in to the Bay.

"We want to say we're making one step forward, two steps forward, and not steps back," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat.

Another senator wanted the money used to help residents with failing septic tanks be connected to sewer systems. Another complained about state plans to require pollution permits for large chicken farms.

The hearing touched on dozens of Bay-related concerns, from the possibility of introducing a disease-resistant Asian oyster to the possibility of a state ban on certain shore erosion control methods.

"The discussion is, what is the precise, best way to spend these funds?" said Shari Wilson, head of the Department of the Environment.

Miss Wilson said the administration hasn't yet decided exactly how it would like lawmakers to divvy up the money. But she said the money eventually will be overseen by BayStat, Gov. Martin O'Malley's agency charged with supervising all departments working toward Bay restoration.

John Griffin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said BayStat could alleviate many of the concerns lawmakers had. He said that population growth has made progress on the Chesapeake's health difficult, but he said state officials are aware they need to take a close look at how to spend money to clean the Bay.

"Everybody needs to think a little differently ... change things that aren't working," Mr. Griffin said.