Maryland unveils revised Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan

Proposal would cost $10 billion

December 03, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland officials released their latest plan Friday for accelerating cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, calling for a series of ambitious pollution reduction measures affecting farmers, city dwellers and suburbanites that would cost $10 billion or more — about twice what's now being spent to restore the troubled estuary.

The 234-page document, presented four days after a federal deadline for bay states to submit final cleanup plans, spells out steps state officials pledge to take over the next seven years to achieve 70 percent of the pollution reductions needed. And, for the first time, it projects the added costs and options for financing the effort, including federal aid and fees.

Among the plan's more ambitious and potentially controversial measures:

•Mandating retrofits of storm drains, pavement removal and other projects in the state's cities and suburbs to curb polluted rainwater washing off streets, parking lots and lawns, an effort projected to cost $2.6 billion;

•Requiring nearly 28,000 households near the bay and its river tributaries to upgrade their septic systems, at an estimated cost of $358 million;

•Revising fertilizer guidelines to curtail Eastern Shore farmers' widespread use of poultry manure on croplands, while also getting growers to plant thousands of acres more in pollution-absorbing trees and grass instead of crops near water.

Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson called the plan "by far the most specific" of any that state officials have ever drawn up in the protracted 27-year history of the multistate bay cleanup effort.

"It's literally a road map we can use to get where we need to be," she said.

The plan lays out dozens of steps state officials propose to take over the next decade to reduce Maryland's share of the pollution fouling the bay. The EPA had ordered all six bay states and the District of Columbia to produce final cleanup plans by Monday so that federal regulators could use them to put the finishing touches on a "pollution diet" that will legally obligate the states to act. EPA officials have pledged to complete their work by year's end.

State officials said they needed a few extra days to fine-tune Maryland's plan in response to hundreds of comments received since the first draft was unveiled Sept. 1.

Analysts with the Center for Progressive Reform, a regulatory think tank in Washington, called Maryland's the "strongest blueprint" for boosting bay cleanup efforts of any of the plans submitted by the states.

New York, the only other state that failed to meet the Monday deadline, is still looking at new computer estimates from EPA of pollution in the upper reaches of the bay watershed. Officials there have questioned the federal government's scientific basis and legal authority for ordering New York to participate in the bay cleanup effort.

"We're still reviewing the data, so we won't be filing it today," Lori Severino, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said Friday. She wouldn't predict when the state's plan would be ready.

Too many nutrients

The Chesapeake's water is overdosing on nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, air pollution fallout and runoff of fertilizer and animal waste from farms, cities and suburbs. The glut of nutrients spurs growth of massive algae blooms in the bay every spring, which help to create a "dead zone" in the water where fish and shellfish can't get enough oxygen to survive. Additionally, sediment washing off land clouds the water, killing aquatic grasses, and smothering fish eggs and shellfish beds.

In a cover letter accompanying Maryland's plan, the O'Malley administration's top four environmental officials say the plan gives them "cautious optimism" that after nearly three decades of effort "a restored Chesapeake Bay is finally within our sights."

They say the plan "strikes a balance" in proposing equal pollution-reduction efforts from the state's rural and urban areas — a critical political calculation, as farmers frequently complain city dwellers and suburbanites are not asked to do as much as they are.

The officials say the O'Malley administration will "explore every option" for finding the fairest and most cost-effective way of reducing pollution, but preliminary estimates peg the cost at up to $10 billion over the next seven years alone. The plan stresses that federal financial help will be needed to cover the gap.

One area where the plan seeks federal funds is to help pay the $2.6 billion estimated to be needed to curb polluted storm water from cities and suburbs. Only five Maryland localities, most of them near Washington, levy fees dedicated to reducing polluted runoff. State officials vow to press local officials to find ways to finance these efforts, and if they don't, to seek legislation in 2012 mandating storm water fees statewide.

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