EPA puts Chesapeake on pollution 'diet'

Agency pledges to hold states accountable for cleanup

December 29, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its final "pollution diet" for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday, averting a confrontation for now over the ambitious plan by getting the bay region's states to promise to work harder to restore the nation's largest estuary.

The diet — spelled out in more than 200 pages, with another 800 pages of appendices — calls for increased pollution-reduction efforts over the next 15 years by Maryland and the other five states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed, with federal intervention threatened if states fall behind in meeting cleanup goals and deadlines. The plan lays out steps that states must take to achieve 20-percent to 25-percent reductions in three key pollutants: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

The EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, Shawn M. Garvin, called the agency's action historic and described the bay pollution diet as the largest, most rigorous plan for restoration of a degraded water body ever produced in this country or possibly the world. He said the final diet plan, produced after months of tense and at times acrimonious negotiations, demonstrated that the multistate "partnership" to clean up the bay remains strong and committed.

After threatening in the fall to block new growth and clamp federal oversight on farms in states that didn't promise to do enough to restore the bay's water quality, the EPA said its final document relied heavily on revised, more compliant cleanup pledges submitted in the past month by the states.

Those threats had riled farmers and some local and state officials in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, where the EPA had panned draft state cleanup plans.

Since then, EPA noted, states had beefed up their cleanup plans to avoid federal action.

Even so, the EPA said its final plan still includes "targeted backstops" where states didn't provide enough assurance to federal regulators that they could achieve the cleanup they were promising.

Garvin said the agency will impose tighter limits on sewage treatment plants in New York, for instance, and require more communities in Pennsylvania to take steps to reduce pollution washing off their streets and lawns.

In other cases, federal officials said they would provide "enhanced oversight" over some pollution reduction efforts in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement declaring that EPA's diet reaffirms his state's traditional leadership role in the regional restoration effort. The state had pledged to reduce its share of the bay's pollution by 2020, five years ahead of other states, and EPA had praised the state's plan as the most detailed.

In it, Maryland officials called for spending upwards of $10 billion over the next decade on upgrading dozens of sewage treatment plants, retrofitting storm drains in cities and older suburbs and curbing polluted runoff from the state's farms. They put off for a year or more, however, critical decisions about how to pay for those efforts and whether to tighten limits on the billion or more pounds of poultry manure applied annually to croplands — a major source of the nutrients fouling the bay's waters.

Other state officials who'd reacted testily to EPA's criticisms of their plans in the fall issued statements Wednesday pledging to work harder to bring back the bay — though with caveats.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, for instance, said he was pleased that the EPA had accepted the state's latest cleanup plan, which he called "stringent but workable." But he still voiced concerns about the EPA's authority to enforce the plan, the costs and the scientific basis for it.

Farmers, developers and state and local officials throughout the region have warned that accelerating the bay cleanup likely will be costly and the initiative is being launched at a time when people, businesses and government at all levels are struggling to recover from an economic slump.

"There's never been any clear indication as to where the money will come from to cover those costs, who's going to pay it and who's going to foot the bill," said Leslie Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Environmentalists, though, hailed the federal move, and argued that restoring the bay will help the region's economy, generating jobs and raising property values. Some noted, though, that the states and federal government have repeatedly missed cleanup goals over the past 25 years. It remains to be seen, they said, whether the new diet will produce meaningful results in an estuary plagued by swimming and fish consumption advisories and "dead zones" where water quality is too poor for fish and shellfish to thrive.

"Like all New Year's resolutions, the EPA's success should not be achieved by the initial goal of their Chesapeake Bay diet, but by their resolve when the hunger pains begin," said Howard R. Ernst, a political science professor at the Naval Academy and author of two books on the bay cleanup.

"Time will tell if they are serious," he concluded.

A earlier version misstated the amount of chicken manure produced by the Eastern Shore's chicken farms. Roughly one billion pounds of waste are estimated to be generated annually. The Sun regrets the error.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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