Obama Orders EPA to Take the Lead in Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Efforts

Leaders conceded last fall that their states were woefully short of goals established in 2000.
Leaders conceded last fall that their states were woefully short of goals established in 2000. (Katherine Frey - Washington Post)
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

President Obama took a dramatic step to revive faltering efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, issuing an executive order that could empower the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set a more demanding timetable and penalize states that fail to meet it.

The order, signed yesterday, signals a far greater federal role in the bay cleanup, instructing the EPA to coordinate efforts by several federal departments and work with state governments to reduce pollutants flowing into the bay. It gives the agency enforcement authority if states miss established goals.

"I can assure you that the EPA is ready to enforce these goals," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who said a "compliance and enforcement strategy" would be negotiated with state leaders in the coming weeks.

In taking the lead from a coalition of state governments, which admitted last year that their 25-year cleanup effort had failed, the administration is positioned to mandate more stringent cleanup goals than politically sensitive state officials could publicly embrace. EPA leadership and enforcement could serve as a cudgel over state legislatures whose focus on parochial issues has often fractured coordination efforts.

It's not clear what the executive order's direct impact might be on the 17 million people who live in the bay watershed, but it could lead to new requirements for upgrading sewage treatment plants and other utilities and limits on developers and on farmers and homeowners who fertilize their fields and lawns with nutrients that seep into the bay.

The announcement came at a meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the body of elected officials from the 64,000-square-mile bay watershed that has overseen the cleanup effort. The group, whose members include the governors from five states and the D.C. mayor, conceded last fall that their states were woefully short of goals established in 2000 that were to have been met by next year.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) enthusiastically endorsed Obama's order as they gathered with Jackson on the lawn of Mount Vernon after the council meeting.

"It's not just the enforcement that could be a help," O'Malley said. "It's a help in terms of their leadership and the dollars they bring to the table."

Obama directed an EPA-led group of federal agencies to define goals for the bay restoration and set milestone goals that must be met along the way. The notion of meeting milestones every two years was conceived by the governors last year in an attempt to make officials more accountable for their promises.

In the past, when goals were set to be met 10 years hence, elected officials could make commitments that would come due long after they left office.

Kaine, who chairs the council, and O'Malley used the council meeting to present new goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the bay in the next two years. The goals would amount to a modest achievement when compared with the targets that originally were to have been met by 2010.

The projections called for reducing the amount of nitrogen reaching the bay by an additional 6.9 million pounds and the volume of phosphorus by an additional 463,948 pounds by 2011. The council calculated those as increases of 77 and 79 percent, respectively, over the current rate of progress in reducing the two key pollutants.

Those numbers become less impressive when compared with the original targets the council set nine years ago for 2010. The new nitrogen goal is 68 million pounds per year higher than the old 2010 target. The new phosphorus milestone is 3.8 million pounds higher than what was projected for 2010.

The targets announced yesterday were condemned by William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has filed a lawsuit against the EPA that asks the courts to order the agency to enforce the Clean Water Act.

"These are way too cautious," Baker said. "The milestones that they say are a stretch are not a stretch, and I hope the EPA will object."

Kaine acknowledged that the EPA might come up with more stringent demands once it evaluates current milestones and negotiates those for coming years.

Jeff Corbin, assistant secretary for natural resources in Virginia, defended the new goals, saying, "It doesn't do any good to come up with milestones that are so aggressive that there's no chance of achieving them."

Corbin suggested that it was the federal government's role to police compliance with the standards so states would not have to "punish themselves for their failings."

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