By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009; A03
The federal government said Thursday that it would seek an unprecedented role as the environmental police of the Chesapeake Bay -- enforcing new rules on farmers and keeping a closer eye on state-level bureaucrats -- in an effort to halt the estuary's long decline.
If the Environmental Protection Agency's plan works, a bay known for soft-touch oversight could become one of the most aggressively regulated bodies of water in the country.
"People don't believe there are going to be consequences if they don't follow" some pollution rules now, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. She said the agency's tougher stance on the Chesapeake could be copied with other watersheds around the country: "We want to make this a laboratory to show that it can be done."
Thursday's report was only a draft proposal. Officials said they would update it in November and begin implementing some of the ideas this fall.
To longtime residents of the Washington area, the EPA's promise of a new approach may sound painfully familiar. In 1983, 1987 and again in 2000, government leaders promised to clean up the Chesapeake by reducing the sewage and manure that wash downstream and help create "dead zones" in its waters.
Every time, they failed: 25 years into the government-led cleanup effort, only about 58 percent of the required anti-pollution measures are complete. On their watch, the numbers of bay oysters and blue crabs fell into abyssal declines, devastating a centuries-old watermen's culture.
During part of that time, cleanup officials have said, they sought to disguise their shortfalls by releasing statistics that exaggerated progress in reducing the bay's pollution.
On Thursday, environmental groups said they were hopeful that this time would be different.
They said the EPA is threatening to do something it has never done before -- punish states that don't meet specific environmental targets. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called these ideas "the edge pieces of the jigsaw puzzle" required to really improve the bay.
"That would be a game-changing play in this really complicated game," said Tommy Landers of the group Environment Maryland. "What we have been calling for is a commitment to enforcement and accountability. And we are seeing the signs of that from the EPA."
Thursday's announcement was, for these groups, the second bit of good news in a week.
On Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said he was introducing legislation that would give government stronger enforcement powers against polluters and allow farmers to sell "credits" for reducing pollution more than their allotted share. Cardin said he wanted all the measures needed to restore the bay's health in place by 2020; the EPA said yesterday that it would set a deadline of 2025.
The Chesapeake's watershed stretches 64,000 square miles across Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and the District. Manure runs off farm fields, fertilizer washes off lawns, waste leaks from septic tanks, effluent flows from sewage plants. All of it is the bay's problem.
Chemicals in these pollutants feed algae blooms that deplete underwater oxygen, creating dead zones that are invisible to people but deadly to fish and crabs.
In the fight against such problems, the EPA now serves as a kind of shepherd -- prodding and cajoling a group of state and federal agencies that are charged with forcing or nudging ground-level polluters to make changes. If a state misses its pollution goals, nothing happens.
Now, the EPA said, it wants to function as a taskmaster. States will be given a certain amount of pollution to reduce and will have two years to submit a plan for doing so. If they don't make a plan, or if the plan isn't good enough, the EPA can cut their federal grants or reject permits for new shopping malls, sewage plants or suburban developments.
EPA officials said they have had this power for years but have not used it in this way. Doing so will be politically difficult -- the federal government, and the state officials who have to cut pollution at individual farms and sewage plants, are both likely to face heavy lobbying from farmers and home builders.
"The powers have been sitting on the books for a generation," said Howard R. Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who has written about Chesapeake politics. "Why weren't they enforced for a generation? Because powerful interests have worked to keep them not enforced. And those interests haven't gone away."
The EPA also said it intends to expand the number of farms required to obtain a federal environmental permit as a "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation." This will require an official rulemaking process, which could take years, officials said.
In another report issued Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would work harder to provide money to help farmers near key Chesapeake tributaries pay for their improvements. On farms, these anti-pollution measures can include a tank for holding manure, "cover crops" to hold fertilizer on fields, and newly planted trees that act as a natural filter along riverbanks.
Mark O'Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said he worried that this would impose new costs while dairy farmers are already under pressure from falling prices.
"We're hearing from everyone this is the worst it's ever been," O'Neill said. "So there is additional stress when they hear of anything out there that could mean . . . that they'd have to put out more money."
On the Elizabeth River, a heavily polluted Chesapeake tributary in Hampton Roads, the progress the EPA promised Thursday still seemed a long way off.
"I don't know, because it's going to have to be a complete mind-set change" about the bay, waterman Pete Nixon said. The evidence of the bay's troubles was clear this summer, Nixon said: Algae blooms created brown "mahogany tides" in the lower bay, and desperate crabs were seen climbing wooden pilings in an attempt to reach oxygen.
"I saw crabs riding on paper plates on the river this summer," apparently to escape a dead zone, Nixon said.