EPA Proposal Would Limit Sewage Plant Pollutants
Chesapeake Cleanup Could Cost Billions
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page B01
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a multibillion-dollar effort to limit pollution from sewage treatment plants that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, turning to strict regulation in an attempt to end massive "dead zones" in the water.
Most of the 368 large sewage plants in the Chesapeake watershed could be forced to reduce their output of nitrogen and phosphorus under a draft proposal issued last week.
The move would reflect a shift from carrot to stick: In the past, the EPA has relied on plants to make voluntary improvements in many cases.
The first permits with new limits could be issued next year. Scientists say it would be the most important move against sewage pollution since the 1980s.
"It's the one technical, affordable solution that will get us part of the way" toward goals of cleaning up the bay by 2010, said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But the costs could be staggering: Many treatment plants would need renovation, and the price tag is expected to exceed $1 billion in Maryland alone. And those costs would likely be borne directly or indirectly by the homeowners and businesses that rely on the sewer system.
Nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage, though they are not poisonous on their own, have emerged as some of the Chesapeake's worst pollutants because they provide food for "blooms" of harmful algae.
These algae can cloud bay water, choking off light to underwater plants and using up underwater oxygen. Nearly every familiar species of bay life is affected by the dead zones created when oxygen and plants are taken away.
"When you lose the plants, you lose the habitat that protects the small fish, the oyster spat, the small crabs," said Clifford W. Randall, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech. "The whole system just starts collapsing."
Though scientists made the connection between nitrogen and phosphorus and dead zones more than a decade ago, environmentalists have said the EPA was slow to act.
The agency did not require all sewage plants in the watershed to limit their nitrogen and phosphorus pollution; instead it used grants and other encouragements to coax them to make improvements. Some states did impose limits on the pollutants -- though usually with the needs of local streams, not the Chesapeake, in mind.
Now, about a dozen plants in the watershed have limits on nitrogen built into their permits, and about half have phosphorus limits, according to the EPA.
Environmentalists stepped up their campaign to change this situation after the largest-ever dead zone appeared in the bay last summer. There was oxygen-poor water stretching from Baltimore to the York River near Hampton, Va., and watermen reported seeing blue crabs leap from the water in a desperate attempt to breathe.
"Nero fiddles; Rome burns," said Baker, the bay foundation president. "Here's EPA fiddling, and the Chesapeake Bay is continuing to die a slow death." Even with the new proposal, Baker said, the EPA's language is vague enough that some plants could avoid improvements to meet the standards.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company