Maryland is so far behind on setting pollution limits for its streams and lakes that it will not finish the job until 2037 -- 58 years after the original deadline -- according to a lawsuit to be filed today by several environmental groups.
The lawsuit, a copy of which was released yesterday, asks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over the job of setting pollution limits from the state government. It charges that Maryland officials have dragged their feet on crucial decisions, hampering the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
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"What we're trying to do is shine a little light on this so they will keep their promise," said Ed Merrifield, whose title with one environmental group is Potomac riverkeeper.
But the rub of the lawsuit is this: The environmentalists are suing about deadlines that haven't been missed yet. Maryland has been given an extension by the EPA and has until 2017 to complete all the work on its plate, a spokesman for the state said.
"We question their math," said Richard J. McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, of the environmentalists' estimate that the process won't be completed for 33 years.
The lawsuit hinges on an important but bureaucratic section of the 1972 Clean Water Act. It requires states to select their most polluted waters, then set a kind of budget that lists how much of a pollutant each stream or lake can handle.
This budget, called a total maximum daily load, is then to be divided among all the polluters that affect the stream, including sewage treatment plants and factories.
Originally, Maryland, like the rest of the country, was supposed to have these budgets completed by 1979.
That didn't happen. The process didn't even start in most places until the late 1990s, experts said.
So far, Maryland has finished about 130 of the budgets, said Rena Steinzor, an attorney with the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic who is working on the environmentalists' lawsuit.
That leaves about 620 to go, Steinzor said. She said she believes the state is moving far too slowly and needs a judge or the EPA to intervene and speed it up.
"Their track record does not give us confidence," she said.
The four environmental groups that drafted the suit are chapters of a national group called the Waterkeeper Alliance, whose president is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The groups focus on the Potomac, South and Chester rivers and on Maryland's Atlantic Coast.
Drew Koslow, whose title with the alliance is South riverkeeper, said Maryland's slow speed has undermined large-scale efforts to clean the Chesapeake.
"Cleanup efforts have been piecemeal because we don't have the scientifically based guide," Koslow said. "I don't think it's possible to clean the bay up until we have these things developed."
The pace of Maryland's progress on the pollution budgets was the subject of a lawsuit in the late 1990s. A judge dismissed that case when the EPA and Maryland agreed on a plan to speed up their efforts.
Federal officials said Maryland is in the same position as many other states in developing pollution budgets, which require monitoring and computer modeling that consume months and thousands of pages.
Jon Capacasa of the EPA's mid-Atlantic region said that agency officials have seen signs that Maryland is making progress after a slow start and that they are confident the state will meet its deadlines.
"You've got to crawl before you can run," said Capacasa, who is head of the water protection division.