State seeks to ease pollution limit

Plan for Baltimore's harbor draws protest from bay foundation


The Ehrlich administration has proposed pollution limits for Baltimore's harbor that are weaker than the state suggested in 2003, triggering complaints from some environmental groups.

Complying with a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act, the Maryland Department of the Environment proposed limits last month for nitrogen and other nutrient pollution running into the harbor from sewage treatment plants, industries and stormwater drains.

Nitrogen pollution from sewage and other sources causes algae blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones" that kill marine life.

The limit of 5.3 million pounds per year of nitrogen proposed by the MDE would reduce current pollution flow into the harbor by 37 percent, according to the state's plan. But the agency suggested pollution cuts of more than 50 percent in a draft 2003 proposal circulated to an advisory panel, state records show.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation sent a letter of protest to the state yesterday, saying it was "surprised and shocked" to hear of the new limits, which it said should be reconsidered.

Kim Coble, the foundation's executive director for Maryland, said in an interview that the state won't be able to meet its commitments to improve the Chesapeake Bay's water quality by 2010 without tighter restrictions.

"The fact of the matter is that every person, every industry, every municipality has to step up to the plate to improve the quality of the bay," Coble said. "So when we have the MDE proposing increases to the nitrogen loads, it is five steps backwards from the goals we are trying to achieve."

Chuck Gates, spokesman for the MDE, said that the pollution limit drafted by the agency in 2003 proved to be unrealistic.

The original figure "assumed that water quality standards could be met throughout the entire harbor, including the deep shipping channel," he said.

Later analysis by the agency concluded that it would be "impossible" for the bottom of the harbor to meet water quality standards, because dredging had created a deep channel in which water does not circulate, Gates said. So MDE adjusted the pollution limits to reflect the reality that parts of the bottom of the harbor will never be completely healthy, he said.

In addition, the 2003 calculation was inaccurate because it did not take into account nitrogen pollution running off a landfill for the disposal of dredge material on Cox Creek that was not open three years ago, Gates said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve the pollution limits, called "total maximum daily loads." The state uses the limits when it periodically revises and strengthens water discharge permits for factories and waste treatment plants.

Maryland was required to create the limits by the 1972 Clean Water Act. But like many states, Maryland has taken decades to write the limits, and was forced to take action by litigation filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups in the 1990's.

Phil Lee, a civil engineer and a founder of an advocacy group called the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association, said he's happy that the state has finally created a limit for pollution in the harbor. Now, he said, the state needs to enforce the limits.

"I'm a realist. The worst thing is not to have anything," Lee said. "Our goal is to have a trash-free, swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020. Some people say that's impossible, but that's our goal."

Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake program director for Clean Water Action, an environmental organization, said he found it disturbing that the MDE in 2004 stopped holding meetings of an advisory panel that he served on that was reviewing proposals for the pollution limits in Baltimore's harbor.

"It raises a lot of suspicion that they are just weakening the standards," Fellows said. "The burden should be on the department to fully explain why they weakened" the proposal.

MDE officials said they stopped holding the advisory panel meetings in 2004 in part because the group came to "an impasse" over the bay foundation's insistence on more information.

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