Correction to This Article
The article gave an incorrect figure for the number of septic systems recently upgraded using government money in Maryland. The figure is 1,778.

Another fresh start on cleaning up Chesapeake Bay

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Tuesday morning, it became official that the government-led cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay had missed its grandest, most ambitious deadline. In 2000, state and federal leaders had agreed to solve the Chesapeake's pollution problems "by 2010."

Here it was, 2010, and efforts to reduce bay pollution from manure, fertilizer and sewage were more than 40 percent short of their goals.

But as the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met for a summit on the Chesapeake, none of them even mentioned the shortfall. Instead, they made a new pledge.

This time, we're serious, they said. For once, there is some evidence that they're right. Already, state officials say they are seeing results from a renewed save-the-bay push that began last year, driven by an influx of federal money, new environmental laws and threats from the Obama administration.

"I can't guarantee it. I can't say, 'Take it to the bank,' " said John Hanger, Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, when asked whether his state would deliver on the pollution reductions it has promised. "But we're on track. We're confident."

On Tuesday, in a rooftop conference room in Arlington County that overlooks the frozen Potomac River, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson formally became chairman of the high-level council that oversees the Chesapeake cleanup. There were speeches, gifts and promises that the bay's degraded condition would not stand.

"We have to send a clear message," Jackson said after presenting Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), the council's outgoing chairman, with an engraved canoe paddle. "The time for talking has indeed passed. We have to act, and we are settling for nothing less than real results."

It was a stirring scene, but awfully familiar.

Since the government-led effort began 26 years ago, the Chesapeake cleanup has produced a number of ceremonies. At one held in Baltimore in 1987, officials promised a clean Chesapeake by 2000. At another, held in Rose Haven, Md., they promised the same thing by 2010. None of it came true.

EPA statistics show that states have taken measures that will achieve just 58 percent of the promised reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen, the bay's most troublesome pollutants, which are found in treated sewage, farm manure, septic leaks and lawn fertilizer. Even if the deadline was meant to be the end of 2010, the states won't come close.

But in the past year, President Obama issued an executive order calling for an overhaul of the cleanup, and governors resolved to get serious. Officials said the new focus on the bay is already producing results.

In Maryland, a new law is cutting air pollution from power plants, which settles on water and dissolves. And an influx of money in the federal farm bill allowed the state to partially reimburse farmers who tackled pollution. Across the state, government money helped buy 55 new sheds to keep manure out of the rain and 22 composters to keep dead chickens out of waste piles.

Those measures have helped Maryland achieve 34 percent of the overall pollution cuts that it must meet to achieve new short-term goal, set for 2011. Officials in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the other two states that provide most of the bay's pollution, said they were also on track but could not provide more specific information about their progress.

All the states have pursued the pollution cuts without changing a key tenet -- some environmentalists have said it is a flaw -- of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup: Farmers generally don't have to clean up unless they're paid to do it.

"We don't want to be in the position of swapping out our farms for . . . McMansion fields," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), because residential development could produce much more pollution in the form of septic leaks or sewage discharges.

There is still a long road ahead. In Maryland, for instance, new money has paid for upgrades to about 1,000 septic systems. But there are about 420,000 septic systems in the state, and most need an upgrade.

And for now, the Chesapeake isn't reflecting this optimism. Maryland researchers have found that its pollution load and its "dead zones" -- areas where fish and crabs can't breathe because algae blooms caused by pollution have depleted the oxygen in the water -- haven't changed significantly. Because of variations in weather and other factors, they said, the estuary might not bounce back right away.

"It's not getting better," said Bruce Michael, of the state Department of Natural Resources, "and it's not getting worse."

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