EPA to set pollution limits for Chesapeake Bay; D.C., Md., Va. could face penalties

The Abbott family, who once made their living from the Chesapeake Bay, have been forced to sell their boats, close their shop and find a new way of life.Video by Whitney Shefte/washingtonpost.com
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 10:41 AM

The Environment Protection Agency will issue an important ruling Wednesday on the Chesapeake Bay, a day after a regional group said the polluted body of water is showing signs of recovery despite continued contamination from the land around it.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2010 State of the Bay Report rated the overall health index of the bay as 31 out of 100, or a D-plus, saying that although the area's blue crab population is rebounding, the bay still experiences significant fish kills and "dead zones" where the water lacks sufficient oxygen.

It was an increase of three points since 2008. The group said that while the bay is still struggling with pollution from farms, sewage treatment plants, urban and suburban streets, parking lots and lawns, there has been some progress.

"This is a good news, bad news story," foundation President William C. Baker said in an interview. "The good news is the bay is finally starting to improve. The bad news is we're still far from where we need to be."

Wednesday's EPA announcement, scheduled for 1:30 p.m., will focus on whether the District and the states whose pollution accounts for 70 percent of the Chesapeake's dead zones - Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware - have put forth plans that will make deep enough pollution cuts over the next 15 years.

The agency will identify an overall pollution limit for the bay, known as the total maximum daily load, which the states and the District will have to comply with or face federal penalties.

Even some groups that have agreed to stricter state rules in recent years, such as Maryland developers, say they want to be sure they don't have to make extra sacrifices over the next few years to compensate for some states' longtime inaction.

"Maryland has the tougher set of regulations and has had them in place longer than most other bay states," Tom Farasy, past president of the Maryland State Builders Association, said in an interview.

He added that although Maryland home builders "have always been prepared" to take steps to reduce stormwater runoff, "there's a big delta between us and the other states. We don't want to have further imposition of requirements just because the other states are lagging."

The EPA's upcoming decision is critical, Baker said, because it will determine whether the water quality of the bay and its tributaries will improve enough to support a vibrant ecosystem for years to come.

"The pollution reduction measures that are being put in place are beginning to work; it's a matter of increasing them and sustaining them," Baker said, noting that increased sewage treatment and smarter agricultural practices have paid dividends.

The foundation uses 13 indicators to measure the state of the Chesapeake: oysters, shad, crabs, striped bass, underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, resource lands, toxic substances, water clarity, dissolved oxygen and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution.

Eight of the 15 indicators rose during the past two years, the foundation said. The indicator for the blue crab population jumped 15 points, and underwater grasses have showed steady progress over the past four years. In April, Maryland and Virginia officials announced the estuary's blue crab population more than doubled in two years, reaching its highest level since 1997.

To score a perfect 100, the bay would have to regain the abundance of fish and oysters as well as extensive forests and wetlands that it had in the 1600s, when Capt. John Smith first arrived there and described its impressive state.

"It's great that so many people are interested in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay report," said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. "It shows that people across the watershed are concerned - and rightly so - about the health of the Chesapeake."

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