States seek federal money for big bay cleanup plans

Complex pollution reduction roadmaps get mixed reactions

  • Sewage: Maryland considers upgrading more and smaller sewage plants, expanding effort to replace household septic systems with less polluting ones or requiring as many as 7,000 septic-served homes to hook up to sewer lines.
Sewage: Maryland considers upgrading more and smaller sewage… (Colby Ware, Special to The…)
September 08, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Chesapeake Bay watershed states that have submitted hefty plans to reduce pollution are looking to the federal government to cover much, if not most, of the added expense of completing the troubled estuary's restoration.

The federally mandated cleanup "roadmaps" drawn up by the six states that drain into the bay and by the District of Columbia take nearly 900 pages combined — not counting appendices — to outline how they intend to reduce the pollution that is fouling the Chesapeake and its tributaries. If only because of their length, the plans are getting a mixed, even confused, reaction from farmers, municipal officials and environmental activists who have been poring over them.

"It's so overwhelming that no one can decipher it except those whose ox is getting gored," said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington think tank.

Even some of them are having a hard time.

"I don't know if I understand it all," said Valerie Connelly, legislative director for the Maryland Farm Bureau. From what she can make out, though, the farm lobbyist said, "It looks like a huge set of goals for everybody."

The "watershed implementation plans" submitted last week are supposed to lay out how the states and District intend to reduce pollution enough to meet caps set earlier this year by the Environmental Protection Agency. Federal officials will use the states' plans to draw up a baywide pollution "diet" by the end of the year, placing strict limits on how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can be discharged or wash into rivers and streams across the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Experts say the bay is gorging on an overdose of plant nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which trigger massive algae blooms every spring. Those aquatic plants, when they die, contribute to the formation of a huge "dead zone" in the bay in the summer, where oxygen levels in the water are too low for fish, crabs and oysters to survive.

Spurred by 25 years of missed cleanup deadlines, and a court settlement requiring regulatory action, the states and federal government have pledged to reduce pollution enough by 2025 to restore the bay's water quality to what it was decades ago.

"These obviously won't be easy choices," Jon Capacasa, the EPA's mid-Atlantic chief of water protection, said last week as the plans began coming in. "If it were easy, it would have been done already."

Maryland's 170-page plan appears to task all sectors of society to increase cleanup efforts, proposing upgrades of more sewage treatment plants and household septic systems, ripping up more pavement in cities and suburbs to soak up polluted runoff, and getting the state's farmers to try new planting and fertilizing techniques to keep animal manure from washing into nearby streams.

Other states' plans follow similar tracks, sometimes at even greater length. Pennsylvania's 175-page blueprint envisions reducing pollution flowing into the upper Bay from the Susquehanna River by tightening oversight of the many livestock farms in the watershed and by developing new technologies for converting animal waste into energy.

Along with most of the other states, Pennsylvania also proposes to foster "nutrient trading," by which farmers can get paid for curbing pollution from their fields. The money would come from sewage plants or developers seeking an alternative to paying for more expensive controls on their own activities.

But at least a couple of states — Virginia and New York — contend that there are flaws in EPA's computer modeling of the bay, which federal officials have used to tell states how much pollution they must reduce. The states also question the federal government's legal authority to require them to do more.

"Without the financial resources, New York would need assistance from EPA to make this work," said Lori Severino, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Virginia officials, who turned in their 117-page plan two days after the deadline, spelled out in a preamble their reservations about the scientific basis for the cleanup targets, the pace of the planning process, and the federal government's legal authority to force states to act.

There are "fundamental flaws" in the EPA's computer modeling of the Bay, Virginia's plan begins. It also says reaching the pollution targets likely will cost billions of dollars, which it calls a massive "unfunded mandate" on the state and local governments in the midst of the worst economy in a generation.

"It is our position that the success of the [plan] may be largely subject to the provision of sufficient federal funding to assist in covering these massive costs," Virginia's plan says.

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