Foundation pressures EPA over bay cleanup

Petition to be filed today seeks quicker action against nitrogen pollution

December 02, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Charging that the pace of cleanup is too slow, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will file a petition today with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for strict, mandatory limits on harmful nitrogen discharges from sewage treatment plants and industries.

The petition - the first step toward a potential federal lawsuit over the Clean Water Act - is an aggressive warning by the nonprofit foundation a week before the leaders of the bay restoration effort celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement.

"It's a sad day when an organization like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has to spend money from private donors to petition the federal government to get them to enforce the Clean Water Act," said foundation President William C. Baker. "But we didn't feel we could wait any longer. We didn't see any movement from the EPA."

The petition reflects a sense of frustration by the leadership of the 116,000-member organization with the voluntary nature of the bay cleanup program, which has sought a consensus on nutrient pollution among the EPA and the states that encompass the 64,000-square-mile bay watershed.

"The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has basically said, `Our patience has run out,'" said Richard J. Lazarus, a Georgetown University law school professor and Clean Water Act expert who reviewed a draft of the foundation's petition.

"The petition is trying to force EPA's hand ... and force them to take some action on water-quality standards."

Rebecca Hanmer, head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, said yesterday that cooperation is a crucial cleanup component and that bay water-quality standards adopted in the spring mean that sewage-treatment plants eventually will be subject to tighter limits on nutrient discharge.

"Our program partners, we think, are on track, not only for implementing one of the nation's most ambitious restoration activities, but also for making sure the Clean Water Act regulatory authorities are being brought to bear," she said. "What you get by taking the time to build a consensus is that you have a lot of people committed to help you carry it out."

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment - the state agency that issues water discharge permits - declined to comment yesterday, saying no one there had sufficiently reviewed the 34-page petition that the foundation intends to file with the EPA today.

Algae blooms

Scientists blame nitrogen and phosphorus for causing summer algae blooms, which deplete the bay's oxygen supply and create areas of water unhealthy for marine life.

Discharges from wastewater-treatment plants account for about 20 percent of that nutrient pollution. Agriculture accounts for 40 percent, and the rest is attributed to sources that include air pollution from power plants and auto emissions.

Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., which make up the bay watershed, have agreed to cut the flow of nutrients significantly by the end of this decade.

Those jurisdictions are close to developing cleanup strategies for each of the bay's tributaries, but the foundation charges that these efforts are doomed to fall short of agreed-upon targets unless the federal government imposes tougher, mandatory restrictions as soon as possible.

Nitrogen goals

The states have agreed to cut annual nitrogen pollution of the bay to 175 million pounds by 2010. In 1985, nitrogen pollution totaled 337 million pounds, and the states must reduce the annual pollution by 110 million pounds to meet the 2010 target.

"We were heartened by the Chesapeake Bay 2000 agreement, but it's been 3 1/2 years, and there's been no movement forward on water-quality standards consistent with that agreement," Baker said. "There's simply no way you can come close to meeting those goals, working on other sources of nitrogen, if you don't reduce nitrogen from sewage treatment plants and industries to the limit of practical technology."

This fall, the foundation has campaigned to persuade the EPA and watershed states to impose stricter limits on sewage-treatment plants and industries that release nutrients into the water, known as "point-source" discharges.

The foundation is asking the EPA to require that state pollution discharge permits include specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus discharges, saying such standards are part of the Clean Water Act.

In addition to requiring sewage-treatment plants and industry to use the most modern pollution controls, the foundation wants the EPA to require that at least 25 percent of its grant money to states be used for reducing nutrient discharges.

If all wastewater-treatment plants were upgraded to the latest technology, the foundation argues, 40 million pounds of annual nitrogen discharge would be eliminated at a maximum monthly cost of $2.50 per rate-paying household.

"That doesn't seem to be too much toward making substantial progress in saving the bay," Baker said.

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