New Bay cleanup pact stirs debate

MD, PA GOP legislators differ over their states' efforts

  • Hydroelectric dam built 85 years ago has trapped sediment and phosphorus behind it, reducing pollution reaching Chesapeake. But major storms scour some out, adding to surges of murky, nutrient-laden water flooding downriver.
Hydroelectric dam built 85 years ago has trapped sediment and… (Kenneth K. Lam )
September 09, 2014|Tim Wheeler

Legislators from Maryland and Pennsylvania sparred at a hearing in Annapolis Monday over whether their states are doing too much or too little to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution.

In a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing called to review the new bay restoration agreement, Maryland state Sen. Steve Hershey complained about the "astronomical cost" of cleaning up the ailing estuary, calling it an "unfunded mandate" from the federal government. Maryland's share has been estimated at nearly $15 billion through 2025, he noted.

Hershey, who represents the upper Eastern Shore, contended that O'Malley administration bay initiatives have stunted development in rural counties, hurt businesses with storm-water fees and saddled small towns with "staggering" costs to upgrade their sewage treatment plants. Meanwhile, he said state officials and environmental groups "have chosen to ignore the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: the Susquehanna River and the discharge of nutrient and sediment that flows through the Conowingo Dam."

It's a familiar refrain heard over the past couple years from Maryland Republicans. Hershey said the bay pact signed in June shows a similar disregard because it fails even to mention the river or the dam.

Hershey's remarks drew a rejoinder from Pennsylvania state Rep. Ron Miller, also a Republican, who represents York County. He is chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Susquehanna is the bay's largest tributary and supplies half the fresh water entering the bay. But Miller countered that the dam, while it can release an added dose of pollution after major storms, actually has helped the bay over the years by trapping sediment and phosphorus behind it.  As for the river, he said it actually contributes a relatively smaller share of the phosphorus pollution that helps trigger algae blooms and dead zones every summer in the estuary. (Computer modeling by the Environmental Protection Agency indicate Pennsylvania supplies about 26 percent of the bay's phosphorus.)

Miller also contended that phosphorus levels have been coming down in all but one spot in Pennsylvania rivers, a largely positive trend he suggested is not mirrored in some other states in the bay watershed. 

(Phosphorus levels in most Maryland rivers have shown no change over the past decade, while they have increased in the Choptank River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Sediment levels have decreased in most Pennsylvania tributaries since 2003, while increasing in most Maryland water ways monitored. EPA did declare earlier this summer that Pennsylvania has fallen short lately in reducing farm runoff of nitrogen, the other major nutrient fouling the bay.)

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md, who presided over the hearing as chairman of the Senate water and wildlife subcommittee, said he was satisfied overall with the new cleanup agreement, particularly since it included goals for reducing toxic pollution and dealing with potential impacts of climate change. 

But Cardin said he agreed with the Maryland state lawmaker about one thing - that federal funding for bay restoration is woefully inadequate.

"The federal government's portion has not kept up with where it needs to be," he said.


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