- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

BALTIMORE | The polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay are harboring bacteria that pose an increasing health risk to humans, a Bay watchdog group warned last week in a report that criticizes federal environmental regulators.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation noted increases in Virginia and Maryland of the number of infections from the saltwater bacteria known as vibrio, some varieties of which can cause life-threatening skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses.

The report faulted the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to clean up the Bay as required under the federal Clean Water Act.

“The thought that you can’t swim in the Chesapeake Bay because you may contract a disease or a bacterial infection, that’s outrageous, especially if the laws aren’t being enforced,” foundation president William C. Baker said.

President Obama called the Chesapeake “a national treasure” in a May executive order that put the federal government in charge of cleanup efforts that previously were led by states.

Jeffrey Lape, director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, did not dispute that the agency has fallen short of its cleanup goals.

“We’re on clear record of acknowledging that much more needs to be done to restore the Bay,” Mr. Lape said. “I think we’re trending in the right direction. We just still have some challenges to address.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation report also noted that Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia issued 76 no-swimming advisories and beach closures last year because of unhealthy bacteria levels, typically after significant rainfall.

Health officials in Virginia reported 30 infections from vibrio bacteria last year, up from 12 in 1999, the report said. Reported cases also rose in Maryland, but a change in reporting requirements may have contributed to the increase.

Rising water temperatures and nutrient pollution are fueling algae blooms that allow bacteria to thrive in the Bay, according to scientists quoted in the report.

Watermen have long been aware of the dangers posed by bacteria, but in recent years, swimmers and casual boaters have also suffered serious infections, the report found.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation interviewed a boater from Newport News, Va., who was hospitalized last year after contracting a vibrio infection from a small cut on his thumb. In addition, a retired printer was hospitalized in 2005 and was “on the verge of death” when a cut on his leg became infected after swimming in Maryland’s Severn River with his grandson, according to the report.

“The thought that it could happen to a grandfather or someone coming into casual contact, playing with their kids, was surprising to us,” Mr. Baker said. “I think it’s going to be surprising to a lot of people.”

Mr. Lape said the Bay is no less safe to humans now than it was a decade or two ago, although he acknowledged that the EPA and other agencies have made little progress on reducing pollution from stormwater. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation should be applauded for bringing concerns about water quality to the public’s attention, he said.

“This report provides very good anecdotal examples of the serious concerns that can be caused by water quality,” Mr. Lape said.

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