WASHINGTON -- Government administrators of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup concealed that the effort was failing for years in hopes of continuing to get federal and state funds, former officials said.
William Matuszeski, who led the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program from 1991 to 2001, told The Washington Post that the program repeatedly released data that exaggerated its success, hoping to influence Congress.
"To protect appropriations you were getting, you had to show progress," Matuszeski said. "So I think we had to overstate our progress."
Over the years, the creatures of the bay were depleted by fishing and disease. The water was polluted by manure, human waste and fertilizer that fed algae blooms, which depleted the water's oxygen.
In December 1983, the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia's mayor and the EPA administrator agreed to work together to cleanup the bay. The effort aimed to rescue North America's largest estuary and set out to control runoff from 4.8 million acres of farmland, upgrade more than 400 sewage plants and manage more than 11,000 watermen.
Four years later, leaders set the bay's first deadline to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus by 40 percent by 2000. They banned phosphorus-rich phosphates from laundry detergent, suspended fishing for rockfish and pushed sewage plants to reduce the pollution dumped into rivers.
A State of the Chesapeake Bay report in 1995 said "pollution abatement programs are working." And the EPA's Chesapeake office predicted in a 1997 reevaluation of progress would meet a phosphorus reduction deadline by 2000.
But internal documents from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group of state legislators that helps lead the cleanup, show a different view.
"In a nutshell, I don't entirely trust the reevaluation," Ann Pesiri Swanson, the commission's executive director, wrote in a 1997 memo. The EPA figures, Swanson wrote, "project a rosy picture. Monitoring indicates a longer row-to-hoe before we meet success."
Drawn from computer models, statistics showing pollution reductions that might occur in the future were not a snapshot of the bay and the EPA didn't have adequate equipment to judge how clean the bay was, Matuszeski said. It was clear, however, he said, that the model's version of the Chesapeake was healthier than the real one.
"We had results that promised us future effects," Matuszeski said. But publicly, he said, "They were presented as 'effects,' and the assumption was that they were real-time."
There was no intent to exaggerate, said Richard Batiuk, the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office's current associate director for science.
"Did we inaccurately apply that model? No," Batiuk said.
Swanson said she knew EPA was "telling the happy side of the story." But, she added, "I don't think people were intentionally misleading."
Govs. George Allen and James S. Gilmore III of Virginia and Parris N. Glendening of Maryland all said they were unaware of any exaggeration of success in the EPA's data.
In 2000, the deadline was missed and state and federal leaders made an even bolder promise to cut pollution more than in the 1987 pledge and have the Chesapeake removed from an EPA list of "impaired waters" by 2010.
Early in her tenure, Matuszeski's successor, Rebecca Hamner said she knew the cleanup effort was probably moving too slowly to meet its 2010 goal. Leaders decided against renegotiating the agreement because they believed there was no way to meet the deadline without exceeding the law or turning to stricter regulations that would force farmers to go under.
In 2002, the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes regional governors, the EPA administrator and the head of the bay commission, decided not to say publicly that the effort was off track and instead portray it as "doable," Hamner said.
"For us to declare defeat would mean that we would have no chance . . . of convincing the legislators to give us financing," Hamner said. "Rather than declare defeat, we should work harder."
Glendening said he did not recall this.
Swanson remembers it not as an order to keep something secret, but an effort to not focus publicly on the cleanup's long-shot prospects.
"They chose not to dub it a failure," she said. "They wanted to keep trying. And the more they could maintain a hope, the more they could motivate policymakers to do the right thing."