Suit may force closer look at pollution in state waters Environmentalists see increasing pressure

January 09, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

An environmentalists' lawsuit will likely force Maryland and the Environmental Protection Agency to take a closer look at pollution levels in more than 120 stretches of state rivers and streams.

Whether the case will result in real cleanup is unclear, members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission were told yesterday at their meeting in Annapolis. But the suit could increase pressure on the state to get tough with industrial polluters and runoff, according to experts at the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, the main federal program coordinating bay preservation.

In November, three environmental groups filed suit against the EPA, demanding that the agency enforce disregarded provisions the 25-year-old Clean Water Act. Under the law, Maryland is supposed to identify degraded sections of its waterways and set pollution standards for them.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, about 900 waterways need assessments and cleanup plans, but have not got them, EPA water quality expert Carol Ann Davis told bay commission members. The commission is made up of members of bay state legislatures working to protect the bay,

Environmentalists nationwide have just begun using the law as a tool, gaining settlements and promises from states to do better, EPA officials said. But because, in the wake of the various lawsuits, enforcement has just begun, it's too soon to tell whether cleaner waterways will result.

More than 30 lawsuits have recently been filed in about half the states. "We've been sued in every state [in the mid-Atlantic region] except Virginia," Davis said.

Lawsuits filed in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia have been settled. Over the next 10 years, Pennsylvania will have to closely study water quality in about 500 stretches of fresh water, which are already classified as polluted to some degree. For each one, the state must set limits on every man-made influence -- from toxic chemicals to artificial changes in water temperature -- that makes the waterway unfit.

Delaware will have to do the same for 180 water bodies; West Virginia for about 500 waterways.

States that fail to comply could lose some federal funds or face much stricter court-ordered cleanups, said Michael S. Haire of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In theory, states can use the limits to force factories to cut back on the pollutants they emit or cajole landowners to voluntarily reduce runoff. Future pollution limits for Baltimore Harbor, for example, could lead to bans on new industrial discharges, Haire said.

The state has tried to comply, Haire said, but keeps "getting further and further behind the eight ball, frankly, " because of the voluminous data and state-of-the-art computer modeling that are required.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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