EPA vows 'unprecedented' effort in Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Kellie Bolinder handles a peregrine falcon at the Kingman and Heritage Islands Park on the Anacostia River.
Kellie Bolinder handles a peregrine falcon at the Kingman and Heritage Islands Park on the Anacostia River. (Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Obama administration laid out an ambitious initiative Wednesday to purify 60 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's waters within 15 years, combining federal resources with a mandate that says states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed must develop the regulatory blueprint.

The announcement was made a day after the Environmental Protection Agency had settled a lawsuit brought by bay advocates in which the agency agreed to enforce tough new standards for the bay. And it comes a year after President Obama issued an executive order to revive faltering efforts to restore the polluted estuary.

"We plan to devote unprecedented resources to this," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said at an event Wednesday on the Anacostia River. "We are holding ourselves accountable for nothing short of real, measurable results."

Jackson was flanked by Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, and Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Agriculture Department.

Bay advocates reacted with a caution born of decades of state and federal commitments to restoring the Chesapeake that have yielded few tangible results.

"It's still a fairly high level of generality," University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said after reviewing the proposal. "That isn't to say it's not a good start, but plans have been around for 25 years."

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker called the administration's commitment "an impressive building block" but said that "we have had these before, and we have a healthy skepticism."

About 300 million pounds of pollution flow into the bay each day from farm fields and livestock, lawns and paved development, sewage plants and airborne pollutants. It has been estimated that reducing that flow to 175 million pounds would increase water clarity and stimulate growth of aquatic life.

The EPA is trying to determine how much reduction is necessary to meet the targets. Then, under the agreement it signed this week, it will require the six watershed states and the District to come up with pollutant reductions that bring them into compliance with those goals.

Each jurisdiction could propose its own regulations for developers, farmers, homeowners, sewage treatment plants and other polluters.

"Getting farm runoff commitment is the big step," said Beth McGee, a water quality scientist with the bay foundation.

Nitrogen from farm fertilizer and manure is the leading pollutant of the bay, and Vilsack said the USDA would commit $700 million to help farmers contain it.

"No group in this country cares more about improving the soil and maintaining clean water than farmers," Vilsack said.

Federal officials have calculated that if all of the planned restrictions are put into place within the next few years, 60 percent of the bay area would reach water-quality goals by 2025.

Back-to-back announcements of the EPA settlement and the Obama initiative buoyed environmentalists, but some said that congressional action would be needed to ensure that the efforts will endure.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) awaiting committee action would give the EPA more authority to punish states that fail to meet regulatory guidelines. It has been opposed by agricultural groups and developers worried about the impact the new regulations would have on them.

"I think we become more optimistic if that bill passes," Tobias said. "If the bill passes, it's less dependent on executive [branch] discretion, and administrations do come and go. If it passes, we will have more teeth and more force to move this forward."

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