EPA says states can restrict discharge from sewer plants

Environmentalists hope policy will aid bay cleanup

October 07, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a policy decision that environmentalists hope will speed the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency says states have authority to restrict nitrogen amounts discharged by sewer plants.

The policy means that Maryland - which sets voluntary targets - can restrict nitrogen levels flowing into the bay from the state's 65 largest sewage-treatment plants, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Virginia and Pennsylvania may also set discharge limits, according to the EPA and the foundation.

The foundation hopes the policy - outlined in a letter from the EPA - will persuade the states to speed efforts to reduce nitrogen, considered the most damaging bay pollutant. "It's an important tool in helping us get to a clean bay at a faster rate than we are right now," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

She said about two-thirds of the state's sewer plants generate nitrogen levels of 8 milligrams per liter, more than twice the 3 milligram level recommended by bay foundation scientists.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made reducing nitrogen discharges a priority and secured $18 million in federal grants for sewer plant upgrades, according to an office spokesman.

As part of the state's effort, the operators of Maryland's 65 largest sewer plants have agreed to install new technologies to reduce nitrogen discharges in exchange for federal grants, said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The Chesapeake Bay Program - an EPA-administered program that includes state officials from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania - also has agreed to try to reduce nitrogen pollution by at least 110 million pounds a year by 2010.

The EPA letter, written by assistant administrator G. Tracy Mehan III, says Virginia and other states have "both broad and specific authorities" in setting nitrogen levels. The letter was written in response to a Virginia state delegate's letter Sept. 16 that asked whether states had such authority.

The bay foundation is challenging Virginia's reluctance to set nitrogen limits in discharge permits for a town and a sewer plant.

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