EPA Proposal Would Limit Sewage Plant Pollutants
When the EPA acted last week, some observers said the agency must have been prompted by 2003's dead zone or by the Maryland General Assembly's passage of a "flush tax" that made it a leader for cleaning up sewage plants.
But the EPA has rejected these suggestions.
"We were starting well before the more recent problems with the dead zone," said Robert Koroncai, the EPA's chief of water protection for Maryland, Virginia and the District. "Because of the science, this does not happen overnight."
Over four years, the EPA said, scientists threw out the old standard for judging the right amount of dissolved oxygen in the bay -- set decades ago -- and drew up a map showing what plants and fish in various areas need to live. One scientist called it the bay's "local zoning map."
With these new water-quality standards nearing completion, the EPA issued a draft "permitting approach" July 16.
In torturous and tentative bureaucratic language, it laid out a proposal that could radically alter the state of the bay.
Sewage treatment plants would be held to permits capping their outputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. In many cases, experts say, the standards would require plants to be pushed to the limits of technology.
"It's like having a plain old, regular car. . . . They decided that you need to have a Ferrari or a Maserati," said Lawrence Jaworski, president of the Water Environment Federation, an Alexandria-based trade association that represents water-treatment plants.
The scale of the project is huge: The plants stretch from the Hampton Roads region in Virginia to the town of Campbell in New York's Finger Lakes region. Virginia has calculated that nearly a billion would be spent to improve its plants, and West Virginia has estimated $133 million.
In Maryland, the flush tax -- fees on sewage users -- would help pay for many of the $1.07 billion worth of anticipated improvements. The source of funding is not as clear in other states. Jaworski said he worried that costs would eventually be paid in higher sewage bills.
"This is going to come from the ratepayers, you and me," he said.
Plants probably would have several years to make the changes required by the new permits.
Still, as slow as the process could be, scientists say it could make one of the speediest improvements in the plodding history of efforts to "save the bay."
By contrast, the efforts to stop nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by agriculture -- which accounts for about twice the pollution of sewage plants -- will take much longer because they will require changes at thousands of small farms.
Meanwhile, the dead zone has begun to grow again. On Thursday, John Page Williams, a senior naturalist for the bay foundation, stuck monitoring equipment into a 50-foot-deep hole in the Severn River near Annapolis.
Many times of the year, he would find fish at the bottom. But Thursday, they were crowded into the top 15 feet of water because below that there was not enough oxygen.
"Everything's bare down below," he said. "I mean, it's lost habitat."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company