EPA proposal aims to ease `dead zones' in Chesapeake Bay

Sewage-plant permits would limit pollutants that starve water of oxygen

July 20, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed would have to limit discharges of pollutants that turn large swaths of the bay into biological "dead zones" each summer under plans announced yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA proposal would force sewage treatment plants to spend tens of millions of dollars on technology to reduce discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus - nutrients that in excessive amounts deplete dissolved oxygen that fish, crabs, oysters and other marine life need to survive.

Richard Batiuk, associate director for science at the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, said implementation of the plan would be a landmark for the restoration of the bay.

"It's something that we haven't been able to do for 20 years, and that is to connect hundreds of sewage treatment plants and permit levels of nutrients that are necessary for water quality benefits," Batiuk said. "And we can do it scientifically, we can do it legally, and we can do it in a fashion that is cost-effective."

But the plan seemed to please no one. Representatives of municipal sewage treatment plant operators expressed concern about the cost of meeting new discharge standards. Environmentalists worried that the EPA plan would not go far enough to solve one of the bay's most serious problems.

Christopher Pomeroy, whose Richmond, Va., law firm represents associations of municipal treatment plant operators in Maryland and Virginia, said plant operators in both states were reducing pollution effectively through state grant funds and voluntary agreements.

"The track record is undeniable," he said. "Anytime the states have made the funding available, the local governments stepped up to take the funding and make the improvements. If we were to continue on that track, I feel confident that we'd see continued reductions."

But officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had filed a petition to the EPA to strengthen its rules on nutrient pollution, said the agency's plan doesn't go far enough. They point to the fine print in the EPA announcement, which said the recommendations are not binding and that permitting decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

"There's nothing in here that forces anybody to do anything" said Theresa Pierno, a foundation vice president. "It's more of the same delay, delay, delay."

At issue is how to reduce one of the bay's most significant pollutants, nitrogen, which, along with sediment and other contaminants that storms flush off the land, trigger chain reactions that last July turned 40 percent of the bay's main stem into an oxygen-starved dead zone. So far this July, 28 percent of the main stem is oxygen-deprived.

Despite the importance of reducing nutrients in the bay, most sewage treatment plants don't have state permits that set limits on their discharges of nitrogen or phosphorus.

The bay does have standards for dissolved oxygen: based on a national model and impossible to enforce in the bay watershed, according to Robert Koroncai, chief of EPA's water protection division for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

"We ought to be changing the standards to something that is more appropriate for the bay," Koroncai said. "We can issue permits, but we need to issue permits to achieve the standard. And if the standards can't be achieved, then you're in a contradiction."

The current standard is 5 milligrams of oxygen per liter of water throughout the bay.

EPA is proposing changing the standard to 5 milligrams per liter at the water's surface, 3 milligrams in deeper water and 1 milligram in the deep channels.

"I do expect that, with permitting of nutrients, that many municipal facilities will need to upgrade their sewage treatment plants. If they do so, it's going to cost money," Koroncai said.

In Maryland, at least some of the money for upgrading sewage plants will be generated by a "flush tax" that goes into effect this year. Utility customers will pay $2.50 a month to the fund.

The Chesapeake Bay Agreement calls for cooperation among the six watershed states and the District of Columbia, and Pierno said the EPA has been loath to impose its regulatory will, preferring to use voluntary agreements. But, she said, those agreements aren't working, and the regulators need to step in, establish permitting limits and enforce them.

"What we're asking for is a regulatory approach," she said. "The undercurrent here is that they're having a difficult time recognizing that the effort they're taking is not getting us there."

Pierno is among several foundation officials who considered the new dissolved oxygen levels too low. Though the bay has had dissolved-oxygen issues in its deep channels since Captain John Smith's time, a standard of 1 milligram per liter is considered hypoxic - stressful to marine life.

But EPA officials maintain that the 5 milligram standard is unattainable in the deep channel and that the 1 milligram standard, while stressful for fish, is adequate for the worms and clams remaining on the bottom.

The EPA will be collecting public comments on the plan at its Web site (http://www .epa.gov/region3) until Sept. 15. The plan is expected to take effect next year, after the states in the watershed revise their water-quality standards.

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