Weakened bay pact is feared

October 14, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Pennsylvania and Virginia are considering easing their restrictions on toxic pollution, raising fears that the multistate commitment to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is weakening.

Critics point to the moves by the two states toward easing strict limits on discharge of some toxic chemicals as evidence that the resolve of the partners in bay restoration falls short of their public rhetoric.

"If you look behind the scenes, they're really trying to weaken what they're doing now," said Barbara Kooser, an environmental scientist in the Harrisburg, Pa., office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Officials representing the partners -- Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- were to meet today in Southern Maryland to adopt a new strategy for reducing toxic pollution and to approve other bay restoration initiatives.

The bay foundation dislikes the toxic-pollution plan -- and also what Pennsylvania and Virginia are doing individually.

Officials from those states insist they are doing nothing to harm the bay, simply easing unnecessarily strict regulations. And Pennsylvania officials point out that Maryland already has made some of the changes they contemplate.

Earlier this week, the bay foundation accused the partners of "backpedaling" on their 1987 pledge to work toward a "toxics-free" bay.

Regulators have proposed revising that goal to one of striving for a bay "free of toxic impacts," where there is no measurable harm to fish, plants and wildlife from hazardous chemicals.

Regulators, scientists and even some environmentalists say the change in wording reflects a desire to clarify the goal, not any weakening of resolve. But the Annapolis-based bay foundation contends that more than semantics are involved.

In Virginia, the state's water control board is weighing whether to lift a ban on the use of chlorine to disinfect wastewater discharges into natural trout streams or other waterways where threatened and endangered plants and animals live. Municipalities have complained about the costs of using alternative treatments, such as ozone or ultraviolet light.

Sewage treatment plants would still have to remove all but a trace of the chlorine, noted Jean Gregory of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality. But critics fear that should the treatment system malfunction, chlorine-sensitive trout and rare species may be killed.

In Pennsylvania, the state's Department of Environmental Regulation is considering changing the limits on discharges of toxic metals into streams and rivers. The Pennsylvania League of Cities, representing municipal operators of sewage treatment plants, has proposed relaxing what it says are unnecessarily strict regulations, said Theodore Clista, chief of surface water quality, but nothing has been decided.

Among the changes sought: setting limits on each toxic metal based only on how much of it dissolves in water, essentially ignoring what settles to the bottom.

Mr. Clista noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that approach, but has given states conflicting advice on how or even whether to adjust limits to account for the toxics in the bottom sediment.

Maryland and Virginia already have changed their limits on toxic metals to consider only what dissolves in the water.

For some metals, the change may not matter much, environmentalists acknowledge. But other harmful substances, such as lead, do not easily dissolve in water.

"It's not like this stuff is going to never-never land," said Jacqueline Savitz, the bay foundation's toxicologist.

"Metals don't break down. Once they get out there, they stay there."

She said that worms and other tiny animals that burrow into the bottom sediment may be harmed, along with fish that eat the bottom-dwellers.

And she noted that the EPA has yet to issue promised limits on toxic chemicals in sediments.

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