Bay regulators slash nitrogen pollution level

Chesapeake program goal lowers contaminant limit by 40 percent in 2010

`On edge of what we can achieve'

Environmental critics say multistate, federal accord is too lenient on polluters

March 22, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A key Chesapeake Bay regulatory group agreed yesterday to cut back the quantity of nutrients that can be dumped in the estuary over the next seven years, but environmentalists said the new standard is too lenient on polluters.

The Chesapeake Bay Program agreed to trim nitrogen deposits to 175 million pounds a year by 2010, a 40 percent reduction from current nitrogen levels.

Most of that nitrogen comes from farms, sewage runoff and air pollution from cars and power plants.

"It'll bring us achievements in the bay that we haven't seen in 40-plus years," Diana Esher, deputy director of the EPA's bay program, told top state and federal environmental officials who met in Falls Church, Va.

Although they had the blessing of federal and state agencies, the new standards weren't as tough as environmentalists wanted.

"It doesn't provide the best protections for the bay," said Kim Coble, a senior scientist and assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The group had recommended a nitrogen limit of 160 million pounds per year.

Coble said the stricter standard would have produced a greater increase of oxygen in the bay's deeper waters and a healthier environment for shad, rockfish, sturgeon and other aquatic life.

She argued that in their deliberations, state and federal regulators had focused on what was politically acceptable rather than on getting the best results.

"It was premature for the first question to be what was achievable. We feel strongly that the first question should have been what does the bay, what does this resource, need," she said.

The goals were endorsed by administrators from six states and the District of Columbia, which together encompass the 64,000-square-mile bay watershed. Each state will base its nitrogen-cutting plans on those standards.

The group also set specific goals for each jurisdiction and for the tributaries that flow into the bay.

Maryland agreed to reduce nitrogen by 38 million pounds, with much of the cuts coming from the Potomac and from Eastern Shore tributaries. Pennsylvania and Virginia agreed to reduce nitrogen by 75 million and 54 million pounds, respectively. The reduction levels were based on the percentages of nitrogen flowing out of each jurisdiction and tributary, Esher said.

Robert M. Summers, director of water management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, called the goal an aggressive target.

"It's right on the edge, some would say beyond the edge, of what we can achieve," Summers said.

Meeting the goals also requires passage of the Bush administration's disputed Clear Skies legislation, which EPA officials say will reduce nitrogen emissions dumped into the bay by 8 million pounds a year.

How the states will pay the estimated $19 billion cleanup cost remains an open question. Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said state and federal revenues will now cover only $6 billion of the clean up.

"We need to make sure we maximize the benefit of every dollar we have and turn over every stone to find every possible federal dollar," Swanson said.

Those familiar with bay cleanup efforts yesterday called the new goals realistic.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, noted that state regulators can set stricter goals in the years ahead, once fuel-cell powered cars and other technologies help clean up the air.

"I think 175 million [pounds] is an aggressive goal, considering where we are now," Boesch said.

The EPA estimates that 285 million pounds of nitrogen are deposited in the bay annually, with about 40 percent from farms and 30 percent each from sewer treatment plants and airborne emissions.

About 338 million pounds of nitrogen were dumped in the bay each year when the cleanup effort began in 1985.

In Annapolis Today's highlights 10 a.m.Senate meets, Senate chamber. 10 a.m.House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

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