Senators Mull Giving Epa Bay-cleanup Authority

August 04, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - -The federal Environmental Protection Agency would be given enhanced authority to clean up pollution in the Chesapeake Bay under legislation now being shaped in Congress, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said Monday.

A new, regionwide pollutant-trading system is another likely feature of the measure, designed to update the struggling, 26-year-old Chesapeake Bay program. The regional partnership, which includes the federal government, District of Columbia, Maryland and five other states in the bay watershed, has repeatedly failed to meet voluntary cleanup goals.

Cardin, in an interview after the second in a series of hearings on the proposed legislation, said the Environment and Public Works Committee's Water and Wildlife Subcommittee that he chairs sees the 1972 Clean Air Act as a model for a "nutrient trading" system and for "giving enforcement to the EPA" over the bay program.

Under the proposal, which the Democrat hopes Congress will approve this year, EPA would get new power to impose sanctions on states that fail to meet cleanup targets. These could include bans on new development.

Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, in formal testimony, said that Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration believes that the most effective sanctions would be "the suspension of authority to issue new hookups to public wastewater systems and the ability of local governments to issue building permits."

With Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House, bay cleanup efforts are getting increased attention from Washington for the first time in years.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in May that made cleanup of the bay a national priority. At the time, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the federal government would begin negotiating with the states on an enforcement strategy, though there have been no announcements since then.

Cardin said the Senate also is likely to consider a water pollutant-trading program for the bay, modeled after a 1990 law that created a cap-and-trade system to reduce acid rain from coal-fired electric plants. The new plan would be aimed primarily at the politically sensitive problem of reducing agricultural runoff, blamed for an estimated 40 percent of overall bay pollution.

Virginia and Pennsylvania, have nutrient-trading programs.

The trading idea has received a generally favorable reception from state and local officials, and some environmentalists. But one clear objection was heard at the Senate hearing.

James M. Tierney, an assistant commissioner of the New York state Environmental Conservation Department, said the proposal posed a problem because of the sheer magnitude of the bay cleanup problem.

Making the bay healthy once again will require "everything by everybody everywhere," Tierney said, down to the smallest road ditch. "Every retrofit needs to happen."

In other words, he explained, the cleanup would need both the farmers' contribution and an improved wastewater treatment plant as well.

Griffin, the Maryland official, also expressed caution. Later, in an interview, he said that a trading system would have to be drafted very carefully to guarantee that it worked.

Critics have long contended that the EPA already has much of the enforcement power it needs, under the Clean Water Act, to reduce the flow of various pollutants into the bay. In January, a coalition of environmentalists and others filed a federal lawsuit asking the courts to order the EPA to take over the bay cleanup effort.

Conservative opposition to enhancing the EPA's authority surfaced from a Republican on the Senate panel. "I know firsthand that voluntary environmental programs are very successful," Oklahoma's James M. Inhofe said, noting recent efforts to reduce runoff into the Illinois River. "My state's experience is that heavy-handed regulations that ignore economic realities and property rights do not work."

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