EPA unveils massive restoration plan for Chesapeake Bay

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
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:32 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency established an aggressive "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday, spelling out steps that six states and the District must take by 2025 to put the troubled estuary on the path to recovery.

The legally enforceable road map - more than 200 pages long, with more than 3,000 pages of appendices - will affect a variety of activities in the region, including how pig and chicken farms dispose of waste and the way golf course operators fertilize their fairways.

The plan is "the largest water pollution strategy plan in the nation," said Shawn M. Garvin, the agency's regional administrator for the mid-Atlantic region. It is intended to fundamentally change the tenor of the long-failed Chesapeake cleanup. The EPA once preached cooperation with state efforts it was supposed to oversee. Now, it is playing cop, promising legal punishments if the states don't live up to their pledges to cut pollution.

Some state and local officials warned the plan could be costly and hard to execute, particularly at a time when state budgets are under immense pressure.

The District and six states - Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York - submitted proposals this fall that would cut pollution runoff into the bay over the next 15 years. The final plan issued by the EPA, using its authority under the Clean Water Act, strengthens the antipollution measures of some of the states.

The EPA is prepared to enforce the state plans with what Garvin called "rigorous accountability methods, ranging from challenging operating permits for wastewater treatment plants or farms to prosecuting polluters for violating the Clean Water Act."

The agency identified three areas that need particular attention over the next decade: wastewater treatment in New York, West Virginia's agricultural sector and Pennsylvania's storm-water treatment. In those areas, Garvin said, the EPA may have to "place additional controls on permitted sources of pollution."

West Virginia estimates it will have to spend $136 million on upgrades to its sewage treatment plants, said Scott Mandirola, who directs the the Division of Water and Waste Management at West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.

"We don't feel that we're contributing a tremendous amount [of pollution] to the bay," Mandirola said. And although the federal government has pledged financial assistance, he said, "the honest truth is West Virginia [and] the headwater states are not seeing a lot of that money."

Glenn Rider, director of the Bureau of Watershed Management at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, noted his state has already imposed regulations targeting its storm-water runoff, which accounts for 6 percent of the bay's annual pollution load. A 2006 study indicated it could cost the state $2 billion to make some of the improvements EPA is seeking. He said computer models indicate Pennsylvania is meeting its targets for nitrogen and sediment pollution but not for phosphorus, all of which affect water quality in the Chesapeake.

Rider said he was waiting for details from the EPA. But "it would be difficult" to meet the agency's pollution targets over the next decade and a half, he said.

The federal government has not calculated what it will cost to implement its overall plan, Garvin said, but is prepared to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to help farmers and affected groups cope with more stringent pollution controls. The Agriculture Department alone plans to spend $700 million over the next five years on bay restoration efforts.

The pollution limits, known as the total maximum daily load, identify how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can flow into the Chesapeake each day from farms, sewage treatment plants, urban and suburban streets, parking lots and lawns. It calls for a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, 24 percent reduction in phosphorus and 20 percent reduction in sediment by 2025. That translates into 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year. Sixty percent of the pollution cuts are to be made by 2017, Garvin said.

"This is a very historic moment in the history, and the future, of the Chesapeake Bay," he said at an afternoon news conference.

The goal of a clean Chesapeake was first promised by the year 2000, then by 2010. Now the tactics have changed, but also the deadline, pushed back to 2025.

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the EPA for making its proposal final. He added: "It is clear, however, that the hardest work is still to come. The states and the District of Columbia must implement the plans through new laws, regulations, funding and enforcement, and EPA must hold all jurisdictions accountable."

Some states, especially those closest to the bay, expressed confidence they could deliver what they had promised to do in their federal submissions, known as Watershed Implementation Plans.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a statement Wednesday saying his state, which has committed to finalizing a new storm-water rule and a bay-wide limit on applying fertilizer to urban lands, could "achieve significant cost-effective reductions in pollution to the bay."

"We feel it is a stringent but workable plan that demonstrates Virginia's commitment to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay while providing for continued economic growth in the commonwealth," McDonnell said. "After much discussion with the EPA, the approved plan balances the important environmental protection concerns with the need to protect jobs in agriculture and farming. While we maintain our concern about aspects of the EPA watershed model and enforcement authority, as well as the significant additional public and private-sector costs associated with plan implementation, we believe Virginia's plan will make a significant contribution to improving water quality in the bay."

And Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has pledged to explore steps such as requiring cover crops on farmland vulnerable to runoff and a potential statewide fee system to improve storm-water utilities, said it made economic sense to invest in the restoration effort.

"A healthy Bay will benefit Maryland's tourism, recreation, agriculture, and fisheries industries; it will improve the value of our homes, farms, and businesses; and it will create green jobs - all while protecting our drinking water and improving waterways across the state," O'Malley said in a statement.

Tom Farasy, past president of the Maryland State Builders Association, predicted battles over environmental goals will shift to individual states. "Maryland is going to have to find the funding to meet its obligations, and this is going to be a challenge in this current economy," he said.

Garvin emphasized that even if the entire mid-Atlantic region meets the pollution targets, "we're not saying the bay will be fully restored by 2025." The final recovery date, he said, will be determined by "Mother Nature" rather than federal and state authorities.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company