EPA threatens states over Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Watermen along the Chesapeake Bay face difficult times -- as dwindling crab and oyster populations leave many without enough to make a decent living, and forcing changes within the communities that reside along the bay.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 9:15 PM

Federal officials began a sweeping crackdown on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay on Friday - threatening to punish five mid-Atlantic states with rules that could raise sewer bills and put new conditions on construction.

The move by the Environmental Protection Agency is part of the biggest shakeup in the 27-year history of the Chesapeake cleanup. Earlier, when states failed to meet deadlines to cut pollution by 2000 and 2010, nothing happened.

Now, the deadline has been moved to 2025 - but the EPA is already threatening states that lag behind.

On Friday, the agency went after Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York, which together account for more than 70 percent of the pollution that causes "dead zones" in the bay. The agency told the states their plans contained "serious deficiencies" and said it could force them to make up the difference with expensive new measures.

It's too early to tell how this might translate into increased property taxes or new rules for farms. But it is clear that - by squeezing states, and calculating they will in turn squeeze homeowners and farmers - the administration is taking a significant political risk.

In an era when environmentalism seems to be losing steam, it is betting that residents of the Chesapeake region care enough to pay the cost of saving the bay.

"I'm a little concerned that EPA could do something to damage that goodwill" toward the bay, said John Hanger, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Hanger said that he thought the EPA's plans were too fast-moving, too draconian: "This isn't China, where the Communist Party meets and announces that 'We're just doing it.' And if EPA proceeds in a way that is more like that . . . it's going to be counterproductive."

Environmentalists cheered Friday's news as a potential turning point for the Chesapeake. "There's good reason to hope that, decades from now, we'll look back on (Friday) as a watershed moment in the protection of the bay," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who has advocated for green causes.

But the specter of increased regulation has led local governments to worry that they will have to raise taxes or set new rules, for instance, about how much of new and redeveloped properties must remain as grass and woods.

"I think everyone will jump on a legal reaction if it comes out that the sewer plants will have to go a lot lower" in the pollution they emit, said John Brosious, deputy director of an association of Pennsylvania cities and towns.

And in Virginia, the Farm Bureau warned that new rules on farms could prove suffocating.

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