EPA Adviser and Others Squashed Review of How Realistic Chesapeake Cleanup Expectations Are

For weeks, environmental officials worked to determine whether cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay were "an impossible stretch." The research was halted when President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected.
For weeks, environmental officials worked to determine whether cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay were "an impossible stretch." The research was halted when President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

This winter, a round of bleak news about the Chesapeake Bay spurred environmental officials to begin asking a radical question: Was it finally time to lower their expectations?

For weeks, bureaucrats gathered data to determine whether goals pursued for 25 years -- which call for restoration of the bay to its former vibrant health -- were "an impossible stretch."

Then the research was killed after President Obama's new bay liaison and others objected to the effort.

"We were, in effect, diverting energy from the real challenge," said J. Charles Fox, the liaison, who was named a senior adviser to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "A number of us had some pretty serious questions about . . . yet another evaluation of whether the goal posts should be moved."

The cleanup program's questions about its own future, which have not previously been reported in the news media, reveal the depth of the problems Fox has inherited. Even after nearly $6 billion in spending, there is a dissonance between the sparkling Chesapeake local leaders have promised and the murky, oxygen-starved estuary that exists today.

This winter should have been a hopeful time for the cleanup effort, which is a partnership of governments from across the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, led by the EPA. Political stars were aligning: The governors of Maryland and Virginia had put the bay on their agendas, and the Obama administration had pledged its support.

But then came bad news from an unusual place: an EPA computer in Annapolis.

The bay cleanup program uses complex computer models to measure the impact of various pollution-reduction moves. The old model, from 2002, had been encouraging. It said that if governments implemented all the "tributary strategies" they had planned, the bay would be clean enough to meet their long-held goals.

Then, in November, cleanup leaders got the results from a new version, which officials say relies on more recent research but is still being fine-tuned. It showed that all of the cleanup strategies would still fall well short. The amount of pollution they would still need to eliminate -- 60 million pounds of nitrogen, a key food for oxygen-depleting algae -- was equal to the load carried down in one entire large river.

Unless they could stop the Potomac from flowing into the bay, the model showed that the cleanup program had much more work to do than previously thought.

So some in the cleanup effort began to ask: Are the goals just impossible to meet?

Bill Brannon of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said that the "tributary strategies" already represented a plan to do everything feasible that the bay needed, everywhere, by everybody. "How do you do more of everything, more of everywhere, by more of everybody?" Brannon asked. It was more than a philosophical question. The EPA is working on a formal pollution "budget" for the bay, and Brannon worried that overreaching standards might result in excessively strict permits for sewage plants or factories in coming years.


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