EPA sets tough new Chesapeake pollution caps

Bay 'pollution diet' likely to require more sewage upgrades, curbs on runoff from urban and farm land

July 01, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tough pollution caps for the Chesapeake Bay Thursday, requiring Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states to do more to clean up the troubled estuary than previously thought necessary.

The pollution limits proposed by the EPA would force the six states and the District of Columbia to roughly double the pace at which they've been removing nitrogen, one of the two nutrients fouling the bay. Maryland, for instance, would have to curtail nitrogen by 15 percent over the next seven years — a regimen likely to require costly upgrades to sewage treatment plants, expensive retrofits of storm drains in urban and suburban areas, and major new curbs on runoff of fertilizer and chicken manure from Eastern Shore farms.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin said the draft pollution-reduction targets would not be easy for the states to achieve. But they represent federal scientists' best estimates of what's needed to restore fish-sustaining oxygen to the waters of North America's largest estuary. Dead zones form every summer in the Chesapeake from algae blooms that are fed by sewage plants, farm and urban and suburban runoff and air pollution.

"While we all recognize that every jurisdiction within the watershed will have to make very difficult choices to reduce pollution," Garvin said in a statement, "we also recognize that we must collectively accelerate our efforts if we are going to restore this national treasure as part of our legacy for future generations."

The limits represent the first major step toward putting the bay states on a "pollution diet" aimed at restoring the Chesapeake's water quality by 2025. Maryland and other states must tell the EPA by Sept. 1 how they intend to curb nutrients and sediment enough to reach their goals. After reviewing state plans and giving the public a chance to comment, federal regulators plan to finalize the limits by year's end and hold the states accountable for reaching them, possibly even withholding federal funds or permits if states fail to follow through.

The regulatory crackdown has been brought on by the failure of the states and federal government to make the needed pollution reductions voluntarily over the past 27 years, since the bay cleanup effort was formally begun.

The EPA proposed annual limits across the six-state watershed on two nutrients responsible for triggering the algae blooms: 187.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus. The limits also are broken down by state and river basin, to ensure that the bay's waters are cleaned up enough throughout to sustain fish. The agency is expected to announce next month a similar cap on sediment washing off the land into the bay, since that clouds the water and prevents fish-harboring grasses from growing.

To meet the federal marching orders, the six bay states and D.C. collectively are going to have to reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Chesapeake and its rivers by 25 percent by 2025. But they have to get 60 percent of the reductions into place by 2017.

That means annual reductions in nitrogen will have to increase by 11/2 times to twice what they have been historically, said Richard Batiuk, associate director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay program.

The pace of phosphorus cutbacks won't need to increase, but won't necessarily be any easier, he said, because there's little more that can be done to remove that pollutant from wastewater treatment plants. That's likely to mean new restrictions will be needed on the use of animal manure to fertilize crops, along with more stringent curbs on runoff from urban and suburban lands.

Neither is likely to be politically popular, as farmers contend they're doing more than developed areas to clean up the bay, while local officials are loath to levy the fees needed to start cleaning up polluted storm-water washing off streets and parking lots.

"It's going to be politically challenging, and it's going to be challenging also from a practical point of view," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. "We're going to have to do all the things we know how to do and then do some extra innovation on top of that."

Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the state Department of the Environment, said state officials have put measures in place that should achieve much of the called-for reductions, but "we still have a lot more to do."

Sewage plant upgrades are already planned in Baltimore and elsewhere, Stoltzfus said, while new state regulations on storm-water pollution and on the handling of poultry manure should also help. Even so, she said, more reductions will likely be required from all sectors of society.

"Everybody is going to have to chip in," the MDE spokeswoman said.


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