Gov. Dick Thornburgh On Leadership: People Living In The Chesapeake Bay States Should Not Have To Wait Another 30-Plus Years For Clean Water

Dick Thornburgh, who served as Governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987, passed away on December 31.  Thornburgh signed the first multi-state Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the federal government in 1983.

The following op-ed was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 20, 2015 when the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council faced a decision on whether to establish “clear, specific, and measurable” pollution reduction goals to meet the 2014 Bay agreement.  Here’s what he had to say--

The Chesapeake Bay is our nation’s largest estuary. An American treasure of legendary beauty, the bay and its system of tributary rivers and streams are critically important-- economically, culturally, and for human health reasons.

Yet, they remain fouled by pollution that runs off farm fields and city streets, falls from the air, and is deposited directly from point sources such as sewage-treatment plants and factories.

The state of the bay system is a national embarrassment.

The bay’s geography at the center of the mid-Atlantic region and in the backyard of the District of Columbia ensures that the entire country is watching efforts to restore good water quality.

For that reason, recent reports that pollution-reduction efforts languish, especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, are concerning.

We as a society have long acknowledged the problem and long committed to resolving it.

In fact, as governor of Pennsylvania between 1979 and 1987, I was one of five signatories to a regional commitment to restore the bay.

That commitment, called the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, was also signed by the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the mayor of the District of Columbia, and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Our agreement began:

“We recognize that the findings of the Chesapeake Bay Program have shown an historical decline in the living resources of the Chesapeake Bay and that a cooperative approach is needed among the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Maryland, the commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia ... to fully address the extent, complexity, and sources of pollutants entering the Bay.

“We further recognize that EPA and the states share the responsibility for management decisions and resources regarding the high-priority issues of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The 1983 agreement established an executive council, whose role was, and still is, to:

“Assess and oversee the implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine systems.”

Roughly half of Pennsylvania drains into the bay. We deliver half of the fresh water entering the Chesapeake and, overall, the most pollution degrading it.

I am deeply troubled that our state contributes so much pollution and has made relatively little progress to slow that pollution, adversely affecting water quality in Pennsylvania and, ultimately, the bay.

The annual meeting of the executive council is scheduled for Thursday. When the council gathers, it must commit to action, and now. The commitments must be clear, specific, and measurable.

The nearly 18 million people living in the bay states should not have to wait another 30-plus years for the clean water promised to all of us in our nation’s Clean Water Act.

Environmental Accomplishments

During his tenure as Governor, Dick Thornburgh had major environmental accomplishments beyond signing the first multi-state agreement on Chesapeake Bay cleanup in 1983. 

They include--

-- Successfully guided the response to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979, just a few months in office, and, importantly, the cleanup efforts afterwards;

-- Passage of the Solid Waste Management act to modernize the regulation of municipal, residual and hazardous waste;

-- Passage of comprehensive amendments to the Surface [Coal] Mine Conservation and Reclamation Act to comply with new federal standards;

-- Passage of the Bluff Recession and Setback Act to prevent development close to Lake Erie;

-- Passage of the Building Energy Conservation Act to encourage adoption local building codes for energy efficiency;

-- Approval of a $300 million bond issue for improvements to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater facilities and unsafe dams administered by the Water Facilities Loan Board [forerunner of the PA Infrastructure Investment Authority];

-- Creation of the Wild Resource Conservation Program to protect and fund research involving endangered plants and animals;

-- Passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure safe public drinking water supplies in Pennsylvania for the first time;

-- Passage of the Radiation Protection Act requiring independent monitoring around nuclear power plants and regulating other sources of radiation in Pennsylvania for the first time;

-- Passage of the first Noncoal Surface Mining and Conservation Act to regulate noncoal mining;

-- Passage of the first comprehensive Oil and Gas Act to regulate oil and gas drilling;

-- Passage of the Radon Certification Act to require certification of first performing radon tests and remediation work to respond to radon exposure issues;

-- Passage of the PA Conservation Corps to provide job training opportunities for young people through state and local projects to improve natural resources, historic and cultural sites [forerunner of the PA Outdoor Corps].

-- Expanded Pennsylvania’s Scenic Rivers Program to include: Stony Creek, Lehigh River, French Creek, Lick Run and Octoraro Creek;

-- Passage of the Chesapeake Bay Commission Agreement that committed Chesapeake Bay states to cleaning up the Bay;

-- Passage of the Agricultural Area Security Law to better protect farmland; and

-- Voter approval of a $100 million bond issue to preserve farmland.

In addition to his environmental accomplishments as Governor, Dick Thornburgh made enforcing environmental laws a priority as the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania in the early 1970s.

In the face of hazardous industrial waste being dumped indiscriminately into the Monongahela River, Thornburgh pioneered the use of the federal Refuse Act of 1899 to establish the legal grounds for the first conviction against the Pennsylvania Industrial Chemical Company.  The case was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Later, as U.S. Attorney General from 1988 to 1991, Thornburgh was involved in the passage of the federal Clean Air Act reauthorization in 1990 which used, for the first time he noted, a new, innovative emission trading system to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution causing acid rain.

The trading programs went on to be used as the basis of similar efforts to reduce nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds and most recently carbon pollution through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Thornburgh outlined his environmental enforcement efforts in a 1991 conference speech he called, “Our Blue Planet: A Law Enforcement Challenge.”

As one example of these efforts, he noted the Justice Department obtained the largest criminal penalty ever under the federal Clean Water Act, up until that time, against the Ashland Oil Company in Pittsburgh when a 48-year-old oil storage tank collapsed and discharged 700,000 gallons of diesel oil into the Monongahela River in 1988.

Thornburgh concluded his 1991 speech by saying, “Over future decades, we as prosecutors are going to be engaged in one of the greatest attempts ever at criminal deterrence: to keep humankind from vandalizing the only home we own -- and have fully furnished in the universe.”


AP-Mark Scolforo: Dick Thornburgh, Fmr Governor, U.S. Attorney General, Dies -- Biography

Fmr Lt. Gov. Scranton Credits Thornburgh For Leading State Through Tough Times

Fmr Gov. Thornburgh’s Son, John, Reflects On His Father: ‘His Life Was Full’

PA Officials Honor Fmr Gov. Thornburgh: ‘A Remarkable Public Servant And An Even Better Man’

Charles Thompson: Thornburgh Remembered As A Leader Who Was Right For His Time

Dick Thornburgh Remembered By Western PA For Leadership, Empathy, Intellect

‘Calm, Grounded Leadership’: PA Politicians React To Dick Thornburgh’s Death

Cap-Star: How PA Officials Reacted To The Death Of Gov. Dick Thornburgh: ‘A Model Of Integrity’

Lehigh Valley Leaders Remember Fmr PA Gov. Dick Thornburgh

Resource Links - Dick Thornburgh:

-- In Memoriam: Dick Thornburgh, 2-Term PA Governor, U.S. Attorney General, U.N. Under-Secretary General Dies At 88

-- Biography - The Dick Thornburgh Papers, University Of Pittsburgh

-- Feature- 41 Years Ago Pennsylvanians Woke Up To A Much Different World Too -- The Accident At Three Mile Island

Conservation Leadership:

-- Gov. Gifford Pinchot On Leadership: Collaboration And Honesty Are The Foundation Of Effective Leadership In Public Office

-- Mira Lloyd Dock On Leadership: The Old Selfish Minds Must Go. Obstructive Reactionaries Must Move On. The Young Are At The Gates

-- Ralph W. Abele On Leadership: Do Your Duty And Fear No One!

-- Rachel Carson On Leadership: The Human Race is Challenged More Than Ever Before To Demonstrate Our Mastery, Not Over Nature, But Of Ourselves

-- Gov. Robert P. Casey On Leadership: Our Problems Have Taught Us That We Cannot Continue The Mindless Practices Of The Past

-- Gov. Tom Ridge On Leadership: I Call For Pennsylvania To Be A Showcase Of Well-Reasoned And Inspired Environmental Leadership

-- Op-Ed: New Year's Resolutions For Pennsylvania Legislators - Fair Districts PA, PA League Of Women Voters

-- 233 Stories: These Conservation Leaders Gave Us Cleaner Water, Land & Air In 2020! They Deserve Our Thanks, Our Support!

-- Lebanon Valley College's Commitment To The Environment

[Posted: January 1, 2021]


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