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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.

The agency gave the states until Nov. 29 to fix these flaws. If they don't, it said, the result could be requirements that sewage plants be upgraded to remove more pollutants, or that urban areas could be forced to corral stormwater with measures like "rain barrels," or grass buffers.

EPA officials said it was too early to say what those new limits would be or how much they would cost. Over the next 45 days, they will hold 18 public hearings on the Chesapeake in all six watershed states and the District.

The EPA's move has made the Chesapeake a test case for American water pollution. There are now 300 places with low-oxygen water along the U.S. coastline, and scientists and regulators have been stymied by the Chesapeake's old problem: It's unpopular and expensive to clean up pollution that doesn't come out of a sewer pipe.

"If EPA can't make it work here, they can't make it work anywhere," said Oliver Houck, an environmental-law expert at Tulane University.

Officials in Virginia and Pennsylvania say that is a real risk. In Virginia, Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech said that, if the EPA imposes its punishments, residents might have to pay extra taxes or sewer fees.

This month in Loudoun County, there was an early skirmish whose results did not bode well for the Chesapeake. The county board of supervisors proposed a new Chesapeake Bay Ordinance that would have set new limits on construction near waterways.

A standing-room only crowd opposed it as too costly and intrusive, and the council voted to delay consideration of the ordinance. County Supervisor Kelly Burk said the reaction from many people was, "We don't have an impact on the bay."

If she had to do it over again, Burk said, "I wouldn't have referred to it as the Chesapeake Bay Ordinance," she said. Instead, she said she would have played up environmental benefits closer to home. "I would have called it the Loudoun Stream Ordinance."

Staff writer Caitlin Gibson contributed to this report.

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