State drops bid to revise water standards

On day group singles out Susquehanna, MDE kills `too polluted' proposal

April 14, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration, under fire from critics who say it is trying to weaken water quality standards, backed away yesterday from a proposal to classify some waterways as too polluted to justify the expense of cleanup.

The reversal came as a national environmental group, American Rivers, called the largest source of fresh water into the bay, the Susquehanna River, the "most endangered" in America, in part because of sewage treatment issues.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation used the occasion to hold a news conference beside the river and criticize the Ehrlich administration for trying to weaken standards for the Susquehanna, Baltimore Harbor and waterways statewide.

"It's a pattern," said Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which recommended the "most endangered" designation. "It seems like they are doing more to avoid cleaning up the bay than to clean up the bay."

Yesterday, the Ehrlich administration strongly objected to the characterization of the Susquehanna River's health and its proposals to revise water quality standards.

But later in the afternoon, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokeswoman announced that the state had dropped its plans to create a new "limited use" designation for waterways too polluted to be cleaned up.

"We have decided that there are too many questions out there at this time, so we are not moving forward with that `limited use' category," said Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the agency.

"The Ehrlich administration is deeply committed to improving water quality in Maryland. We believe in basing decisions on good science. And we will do everything we can to reduce pollution in Maryland," Oberg said.

In separate matters, the MDE is considering contradictory data on whether to move ahead with its proposal to remove the Susquehanna from a list of rivers impaired by nutrient pollution, often fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns.

The agency in January was asked by the Environmental Protection Agency to hold off on a state proposal to remove Baltimore Harbor from a list of waterways polluted by chrome, lead and zinc until a study can be completed.

Removing the Susquehanna or Baltimore Harbor from the lists of waterways tainted by these chemicals would reduce pressure on sewage treatment plants and factories to cut back on their pollution. Creating a new category for "limited use" waterways could have the same effect, of relaxing standards, critics said.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she was happy to hear the Ehrlich administration was rethinking its proposed revision of water quality standards statewide.

"We would be very pleased if the administration listened to us and took that action," Coble said. "It's the right thing to do for the Chesapeake Bay now and for the future of Maryland's environment."

During a news conference yesterday morning in Washington, American Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, released its annual list of "most endangered rivers." Listed first was the Susquehanna River, which flows through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, providing about half of the fresh water in the bay.

The designation puzzled some state officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania, who said data show that pollution levels from nitrogen and phosphorus, much of it fertilizer running off of farms, have been improving or level in the Susquehanna during the past 20 years. Some data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources show worsening oxygen levels from 1986 to 2003.

But in most areas of the lower Susquehanna, samples show about 6 milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter, which is above the federal standard of 5 milligrams per liter, said Oberg.

"I don't see any scientific data why it would be ranked No. 1," said Oberg. "The overall trend on the Susquehanna is that the water quality is improving. Yes, there are a few hot spots, but it's fine for fishing; it's fine for swimming."

Charlie Young, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said: "The trends are definitely good. We are making headway in improving the quality of the river."

Sara Nicholas, an associate director of American Rivers, said the Susquehanna was selected not because it's the dirtiest river in America or even because it's becoming worse. "It's a pretty good river, but it could be a lot better," said Nicholas. "It's the river with the most uncertain future, and we are shining a light on that problem."

The designation was in part political, meant to influence the Pennsylvania legislature, which is considering a $1 billion proposal to upgrade sewage and storm water systems statewide, Nicholas said. The Susquehanna could use this money because the communities along its banks have a large number of combined sewage and storm water systems, which are easily overwhelmed during heavy rains, she said.

The designation was also meant as a symbolic protest of the Bush administration's proposal to cut by about a third funding nationally for sewage treatment improvements, including $14 million in cuts for Pennsylvania, Nicholas said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation held a separate news conference at noon along the banks of the Susquehanna in Havre de Grace, during which it protested the MDE's proposal to removal of the lower section of the river from a list of waterways impaired by nutrient pollution.

McGee, the foundation scientist, said 2.6 million pounds of nitrogen and the equivalent of 700 dump trucks of dirt are being washed down the Susquehanna River every day into the Chesapeake Bay, causing algae blooms.

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