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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

When Southern Maryland Took on the EPA

Written by Julia A. King, Associate Professor of Anthropology

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Look around you. The impact of the 1960s and ‘70s is evident everywhere in southern Maryland. 

The Thomas Johnson Bridge, linking St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, was conceived in the '60s and built in the '70s. The region’s many state parks, including those at Point Lookout, St. Mary’s River, and Calvert Cliffs, were created during these decades. The College of Southern Maryland – then known as Charles County Community College – got its start at this time, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland became a four-year public institution. The St. Mary’s City Commission—now Historic St. Mary’s City—was launched in the mid-60s. It was also the period when the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and the coal-burning power plants at Morgantown and Chalk Point were brought on-line. 

The era’s impact is also in what you don’t see. No slot machines anymore. No oil refinery. No deep-water port. No schools for white children and no schools for “colored” children. No separate entrances for whites and for blacks. No massive housing development at Mulberry Fields, near Leonardtown, or at Kitt’s Point, near St. Inigoes.

None of this, by the way, was accidental.

Students working on the new SlackWater history project at St. Mary’s College have focused on these seminal, transforming, decades, exploring the events of those years and their implications for those of us living here today. Editor Zach Pajak, a St. Mary’s senior producing the next journal as his St. Mary’s Project, along with assistants Elizabeth Albershardt, Anne Grulich, and Winona Landis, have been assembling material from the last two courses in Cultural Journalism for the next issue, slated for publication in May.

Included here is an excerpt from one of the many pieces that will be found in the next issue. In this piece, St. Mary’s student Beth Macinko explores the lawsuit the three southern Maryland counties filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1977, demanding that the EPA force the State of Maryland to follow the law and regulate wastewater discharged upstream into the Patuxent River. Although the counties had the scientific evidence needed to support their claim, the three jurisdictions were up against some formidable opponents:


Below the Surface

by Beth Macinko ’10

What began as a simple community effort to raise awareness and protect the Patuxent River evolved into an epic, unprecedented five-year legal battle to force both the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Maryland to recognize and remedy the problems of the river.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, local watermen and recreational river users alike noticed the increasing cloudiness of the Patuxent River coupled with a decrease in productivity. Scientists looking at years of data were likewise seeing a startling trend: increasing turbidity (water cloudiness), declining levels of seagrass, decreasing dissolved oxygen counts, and rising nutrient concentrations in the river, almost certainly caused by incompletely treated wastewater discharged from the rapidly growing upriver counties along the Patuxent.

Government officials at the state level, however, refused to acknowledge the problems of the Patuxent River. To those who did not spend their lives on the Patuxent, the river appeared the same as it always had. The solution—updating sewage treatment plants—would be costly, and the evidence for the harmful effects of nutrients was not yet definitive.

So, instead of addressing the increasing problems of water quality, officials questioned the legitimacy of rural Southern Maryland voices. The state implied that those trying to help the river did not know what they were talking about, and the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources declared the health of the river just fine. One official statement went so far as to say the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay was actually improving. Those who spoke out about the decline of the river were accused of being anti-Maryland, and questioning the quality of the river was considered “irresponsible.”

Southern Marylanders, however, were not about to watch the Patuxent River decline without a fight.

In 1977, in an unprecedented and potentially risky move, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties banded together, hired an environmental attorney, and then filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to compel the State of Maryland to take action.

Going into the case, there was no guarantee for success. Three of the least developed and least populated counties in Maryland were appealing to state and federal institutions for action.  St. Mary’s County Commissioner Ford Dean astutely predicted that “the historical facts indicate that persistence will be needed to solve the plight of the Patuxent.” The three counties approved an expenditure of $155,000 for the services of their attorney.  Although a substantial sum, the money was seen as a worthwhile investment to protect the future of the Patuxent. Meanwhile, for the next two years, the state continued to deny the problem.

 <As the case moved through the court system, an important turning point was reached in December 1979.  Governor Harry Hughes came to Southern Maryland to examine the issue firsthand. As Hughes stood on the deck of one of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory’s research vessels, he saw the lack of aquatic life in material dredged from the river’s bottom.  At that moment, Hughes realized the State could no longer ignore the problem.

In October 1980, the court ruled in favor of the three counties, finding that the current Water Quality Plan was deficient and directing the State to form a new plan. 

  Although the counties knew they had the evidence, and a righteous cause, they had nonetheless taken on some powerful opponents.  “After years of wrangling with the state and upstream counties over the causes of the declining water quality in the river,” The Enterprise newspaper declared in an editorial, “the acceptance of the Southern Maryland arguments last week is stunning.”



For the rest of the story, look for the next issue of SlackWater, which will be published in early May. The SlackWater Center is a consortium of St. Mary’s students, faculty and community members who compile cultural histories of Southern Maryland, often using the residents’ own memories. Beth Macinko would like to acknowledge Enterprise editor Rick Boyd, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory scientist Walter Boynton, former State Senator Bernie Fowler, Charles County Commissioner Gary V. Hodge, Zach Pajak, Katherine Ryner, Hilary Wiech, Sarah Weisse, and the students in the Fall 2008 Cultural Journalism class for their very generous assistance with her project.

For more information on the projects of the SlackWater Center, contact Julia A. King at or by phone at 240-895-4398.<